“Sanders also supported Vermont’s civil unions law in 2000, and he was an outspoken proponent of gay marriage before the Legislature in his home state in 2009 passed one of the nation’s first same-sex marriage laws.”
— news release, Bernie Sanders for president Web site, July 5, 2015
“I voted against DOMA — you know what DOMA is?” he demanded, referring to the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, which [Hillary] Clinton once supported during her husband’s presidency. “I’m not evolving when it comes to gay rights. I was there!”
— Sanders, in an interview with Gail Collins of The New York Times, May 1, 2015
Several readers asked us to look into these statements in light of a fascinating article in Time magazine titled “How Bernie Sanders evolved on Gay Marriage.” The article documented how while Sanders may have opposed DOMA, he did it more for narrow, legalistic issues — and how he was also late to support gay marriage in his own state.
We’ve examined his record. Can his campaign back up its claim that he was an “outspoken proponent of gay marriage” before Vermont’s legislature passed — over the governor’s veto — one of the first same-sex marriage laws?
There is little doubt that Sanders has long been a supporter of gay rights. His campaign supplied a long list of positions over time, dating back to 1972, backing gay and lesbian rights.
His vote on DOMA was a relatively lonely one, as he was just one of 67 House members to vote against it. (DOMA allowed each state to reach its own decision about the legality of same-sex unions, and defined marriage as between a man and woman under federal law for the purposes of federal programs and benefits.) Given that then President Bill Clinton (D) had said he would sign the law, it would have been far easier, politically, to vote for it.
But on gay marriage, Sanders appears to have held off explicit support until the Vermont legislature was poised to pass it, frustrating gay activists.
The only document his campaign could provide showing Sanders’ support for gay marriage was an article that appeared on July 11, 2009, in the Valley News of West Lebanon, N.H. The article was mostly about the reversal by Vermont’s other senator, Patrick Leahy (D), on DOMA, but it also noted that Sanders had “previously voiced support for gay marriage laws passed this spring” in Vermont and New Hampshire.
The Fact Checker contacted the author of the article, John P. Gregg, but he said he no longer had documentation of the statements that Sanders might have made on the issue.
On Aug. 12, 2009, the blog for Freedom to Marry, which advocated for same-sex marriage laws, saluted Sanders as a “Voice for Equality.”
But both of these news items appeared after the Vermont legislature approved the gay-marriage law in April 2009. We can find no evidence of “outspoken” support before the law was passed — a process that started in 2007 — either in news clips or his Senate office press statements maintained on the WayBack Machine.
Indeed, a noted Vermont political writer, the late Peter Freyne, wrote in 2000 that Sanders deserved the “Wishy-Washy Award hands down” for his “carefully crafted non-statement statement” on whether the Vermont legislature should craft a law that permitted civil unions for homosexuals.
“Obtaining Congressman Bernie Sanders’ position on the gay marriage issue was like pulling teeth…from a rhinoceros,” Freyne said after the Vermont Supreme Court urged the Vermont legislature to draft a law. “Sanders publicly tried walking the tightrope — applauding the court’s decision and the cause of equal rights without supporting civil marriage for same-sex couples.” Freyne accused Sanders of not wanting to offend “his conservative, rebel-loving rural following out in the hills.”
In 2006, when Sanders first ran for the Senate, he said that the state was not ready for gay marriage, given the fact that the civil-union law had caused so much political controversy after it was approved. In an Associated Press article about Sanders’ opposition to a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, he was asked whether Vermont should legalize full marriage rights for same-sex couples. He replied: “Not right now, not after what we went through.”
In an Oct. 26 interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Sanders acknowledged he urged a go-slow approach on gay marriage: “There were anti-civil union demonstrations. The state was very much split. And I felt that at that time, given the fact that Vermont had gone first in breaking new ground, let’s take it easy for a while. That was my reasoning.”
In an interview with NBC News, Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of pro-gay-marriage group Freedom to Marry, said that Sanders has exaggerated his record on gay marriage. “Senator Sanders, at points, has implied that he has been a strong and consistent supporter of the freedom to marry — but at crucial junctures, at least publicly, he was not,” Wolfson told NBC.
“Bernie’s seemingly wishy-washy remarks are not that uncommon,” said Doug Hoffer, the Vermont state auditor who has endorsed Sanders. “In my experience following Bernie once he was first elected to Congress, he was often a bit reluctant to wade too deeply into matters that were clearly within the purview of the state.”
The Pinocchio Test
Sanders likes to portray himself as a no-nonsense truth teller. But he is also a politician who, for a variety of reasons, sometimes has trimmed his sails on certain controversial issues.
Sanders can certainly have bragging rights for having opposed DOMA when it was not a popular step. But his position on same-sex marriage was more nuanced and obscure, and he appears to have evolved on the issue until it was more politically feasible. We can find little evidence he was an “outspoken proponent” of or ahead of the crowd on either Vermont’s 2000 civil-union law or the 2009 gay-marriage law, though we would welcome more evidence concerning his contemporaneous statements and can adjust this rating if more emerges.
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