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Santorum refuses to apologize for antigay comments

WASHINGTON—Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the US Senate’s third-highest ranking Republican, issued a statement April 22 charging that an Associated Press article was “misleading” when it quoted him comparing consensual gay sex to incest.

        Santorum’s announcement did little to placate most gay groups, including the gay political organization Log Cabin Republicans, which demanded the senator either “fully apologize” or step down from his leadership post.

        “My comments should not be misconstrued in any way as a statement on individual lifestyles,” Santorum said, one day after the AP published a report in which he urged the US Supreme Court to uphold the Texas state law banning homosexual sodomy.

        In the interview, which was taped April 7 and published April 21, Santorum said: “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.”

        “All of those things are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family,” Santorum said. “And that’s sort of where we are in today’s world, unfortunately. It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn’t exist, in my opinion, in the United States Constitution.”

        “I have no problem with homosexuality,” Santorum explained. “I have a problem with homosexual acts.”

        Santorum chairs the Senate Republican Conference, which places him third in his party’s leadership, behind Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

        Santorum’s remarks sparked a predictable firestorm from Democrats and gay rights groups on both sides of the political aisle.

        “We are expecting an apology, and a full one, and expect that and his dedication to moving forward will allow Senator Santorum to stay in the party leadership,” said Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans.

        “If he does not [fully apologize], we would ask for him to step down,” Guerriero added.

        But Santorum told Fox News on April 22, “I do not need to give an apology. I think this is a legitimate public policy discussion.”

“Deeply discriminatory”

        Critics compared Santorum’s comments to those of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who lost his post as Senate majority leader last year after appearing to support racial segregation.

        While speaking at an event celebrating Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday, Lott praised the retiring South Carolina Republican’s 1948 run for president on a segregationist platform. Lott made his comments Dec. 5; they were first reported in The New York Times Dec. 10, and President Bush publicly spoke out against the senator’s statements two days after the controversy hit the national press. Bush said Lott’s comments “do not reflect the spirit of our country.”

        Lott, who in 1998 had also compared gays to alcoholics and kleptomaniacs, gave up his leadership post on Dec. 21.

        “Santorum’s statements mark the second time in recent months that a Republican leader has made comments marginalizing or attacking an entire segment of the population,” said the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay political group, in a statement condemning Santorum’s “deeply discriminatory” remarks.

        HRC called on Republican leaders “to take quick and decisive action to repudiate Senator Santorum’s remarks,” but most GOP officials have failed to repudiate Santorum’s statements.

        White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters April 25 that “the president believes the senator is an inclusive man…. The president has confidence in Senator Santorum and thinks he’s doing a good job as senator.”

        White House Political Director Ken Mehlman called Santorum “one of the original compassionate conservatives.”

        “The people of Pennsylvania, no matter who they are or where they’re from, understand how hard he’s working for them, understand that he has a philosophy that is good for them and that will help improve their state,” Mehlman said.

        The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has called on Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, the state’s senior senator, to denounce Santorum, but Specter declined.

        “I have known Rick Santorum for the better part of two decades, and I can say with certainty he is not a bigot,” Specter said in a statement.

        A spokesperson for Frist, who became Senate majority leader in the wake of Lott’s resignation, initially refused comment on Santorum’s statements to the AP. A day later, Frist called Santorum “a consistent voice for inclusion and compassion in the Republican Party and in the Senate.”

        “To suggest otherwise is just politics,” Frist said.

        Republicans who have spoken out against Santorum’s remarks include Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Gordon Smith of Oregon.

        “Discrimination and bigotry have no place in our society,” Snowe said, “and I believe Senator Santorum’s remarks undermine Republican principles of inclusion and opportunity.”

“Woefully inadequate”

        Santorum, who is currently serving his second term as a senator from Pennsylvania after four years in the House of Representatives, has a reputation for focusing on what social conservatives call “family” issues, including a ban on late-term abortions and tax exemptions for donations to religious charities.

        Santorum has earned a score of only 14 out of 100 on the most recent congressional scorecard on gay issues compiled by HRC. He has not co-sponsored any legislation to add sexual orientation to federal hate crimes laws or to ban antigay job discrimination, and he earned points on only one issue: voluntarily agreeing to a sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy for his office.

        Santorum maintained in his clarification statement that he is “a firm believer that all are equal under the Constitution.”

        “When discussing the pending Supreme Court Case Lawrence vs. Texas, my comments were specific to the right to privacy and the broader implications of a ruling on other state privacy laws,” he said.

        The US Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer in Lawrence vs. Texas, a challenge to the Texas sodomy law that could have broad implications for sodomy laws nationwide. (See separate report.)

        Guerriero called Santorum’s statement “woefully inadequate.”

        “Senator Santorum has a leadership role in coalition building as the Senate GOP conference chairman. You don’t build coalitions by divisive and mean-spirited statements,” the Log Cabin leader said.

Battle lines drawn

        Conservative groups rushed to defend the senator. The Family Research Council denounced HRC and Log Cabin’s “smear tactics” and said gay groups are “attacking” Santorum to “intimidate defenders of marriage and silence critics of the homosexual political agenda,” according to FRC President Ken Connor.

        The Republican Unity Coalition, a group formed by gay Republicans with ties to President Bush, issued a statement April 23 that called Santorum’s views “flat-out wrong” but “well within bounds of speech and propriety.”

        The statement, released by RUC leader Charles Francis, a gay Texan who has been described as “close” to the president, said it was “false and harmful” for Santorum to compare gay sex to bigamy, polygamy and incest, but added, “there is a difference between being wrong and being accused of all kinds of bigotry.” Former President Gerald Ford and Mary Cheney, the openly lesbian daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, are members of the RUC.

        But many prominent Democrats—including four 2004 presidential candidates—denounced Santorum’s remarks and called on Republicans to remove him from leadership.

        “The silence with which President Bush and the Republican Party leadership have greeted Senator Santorum’s remarks is deafening,” said 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.

        Dean, the Vermont governor who signed a law creating civil unions for same-sex couples, said the silence “implicitly condones a policy of domestic divisiveness, a policy that seeks to divide Americans again and again on the basis of race, gender, class and sexual orientation.”

        Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), another Democrat running for president, said Santorum’s remarks “take us backwards in America.”

        “The White House speaks the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism, but they’re silent while their chief lieutenants make divisive and hurtful comments that have no place in our politics,” Kerry said.

        Presidential contender Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) issued a statement calling the comments “disturbing and inappropriate.”

        “It is unfortunate that this prejudice still exists in this country,” Edwards said.

        Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) said he was “disappointed with the Republican leadership’s insensitivity and blatant disregard for the rights of millions of Americans.”

Laura Douglas-Brown for Pittsburgh's Out
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