WASHINGTON - Most of the Democrats running for the White House said Tuesday that gay couples should have the same legal rights as husbands and wives, but the leading candidates stopped short of supporting homosexuals' right to marry.
The only three candidates who say federal law should protect the right to same-sex marriages are Al Sharpton, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. Most of the others at a presidential forum sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign back the less controversial right to gay civil unions.
Two of the nine presidential candidates did not appear at the forum, Sens. Bob Graham of Florida and John Edwards of North Carolina.
The audience hissed when Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts said marriage is a right reserved in America for men and women.
"Marriage has a special status in our culture, our society, our history," Lieberman said.
Vermont is the only state that has a civil-unions law giving gay couples the full legal rights as married couples - a law signed by former Gov. Howard Dean, one of the presidential contenders to address the forum. Dean said civil unions give gays legal rights, such as health benefits, inheritance, child custody and hospital visitation, in the absence of marriage.
Under tough questioning from moderator Sam Donaldson, Dean said the distinction of the word "marriage" is the hangup in the states "because marriage has a long, long history as a religious institution."
But Sharpton said simply granting civil unions is a form of discrimination against gays, "like saying we'll give blacks or whites or Latinos the rights to shack up, but not marry."
Despite the differences over gay marriage, the Democratic presidential candidates agree with most of the policy positions of the Human Rights Campaign, including support for antidiscrimination laws, hate crimes legislation, increased funding for HIV/AIDS research and treatment, and federal domestic partnership benefits.
But the issue of gay marriage is sure to dog the candidates in next year's election. Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, said the group would invite Bush and other Republicans to future forums, which elicited laughter that suggested the crowd didn't believe the president would appear.
Several congressional Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., have called for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages. Bush has said "marriage is between a man and a woman," but he has sidestepped the amendment issue.