South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, who announced his retirement last month, has reversed his position on gay marriage, saying Monday that he supports the legalization of same-sex unions.
The 66-year-old Democrat has said for years that he doesn't support gay marriage, and he voted for the 1996 federal law that defined marriage as the union of a man and woman and provided that a state did not have to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
"After lengthy consideration, my views have evolved sufficiently to support marriage equality legislation," Johnson said in a written statement. "This position doesn't require any religious denomination to alter any of its tenets; it simply forbids government from discrimination regarding who can marry whom."
His announcement leaves three Senate Democrats who have not come out in support of federal efforts to legalize gay marriage: Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Landrieu and Pryor are up for re-election next year in their Republican-leaning states.
Johnson's position announced Monday is at odds with state laws passed in 1996 and 2000 banning gay marriage and saying South Dakota would not recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Voters passed a state constitutional amendment in 2006 saying only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid.
Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, announced March 26 that he would not seek re-election in 2014, partly because the effects of a life-threatening brain hemorrhage in 2006 had made speech and mobility difficult.
In 2005 and 2006, Johnson said he did not support gay marriage but also that he did not support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution introducing a specific ban. He also noted in January 2005 that he had voted for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act protecting state laws on marriage.
Former state Rep. Roger Hunt of Brandon, a Republican who was involved in state legislative efforts to ban gay marriage, said Johnson's support of a federal law legalizing gay marriage runs counter to the constitution's guarantee of states' rights.
"I think families are so important, a family between a man and a woman is so important," Hunt said.
Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin issued a statement Monday praising Johnson's decision.
"Sen. Johnson has affirmed what a majority of Americans across the country believe — that committed and loving gay and lesbian couples deserve the right to marry," Griffin said.
Two Republican senators, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Rob Portman of Ohio, have announced their support for gay marriage.