North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan said Wednesday she backs marriage rights for same-sex couples, joining a growing number of Democratic Party politicians ahead of her re-election race next year.
Hagan announced her position as the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a law that denies federal benefits to married same-sex couples.
"Marriage equality is a complex issue with strong feelings on both sides, and I have a great deal of respect for varying opinions on the issue," Hagan said on her official Facebook account. "After much thought and prayer, I have come to my own personal conclusion that we shouldn't tell people who they can love or who they can marry."
Hagan last year opposed a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, saying it could make it more difficult for companies to recruit talent. President Barack Obama announced his support for the unions the day after 61 percent of North Carolina voters backed the gay-marriage amendment last May.
The amendment reflected North Carolina's urban-rural divide on social issues. The question passed in 92 of North Carolina's 100 counties, while the counties surrounding Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Durham and Charlotte among those where the question was defeated.
Hagan became the 47th U.S. senator to throw her support behind gay marriage. Forty-three other Democrats, two independents who caucus with Democrats and one Republican, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, had previously announced their support.
Nine Senate Democrats oppose gay marriage, according to the Human Rights Campaign, one of the country's largest gay rights organizations and which tracks politicians' views on gay marriage. They are Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Bill Nelson of Florida, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Tom Carper of Delaware, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.
No other Republicans in the Senate besides Portman publicly supports gay marriage.
North Carolina's senior senator, Republican Richard Burr, declined to discuss his view on the subject during an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press other than to say he has "personal opinions."
Burr called marriage an issue for states to decide.
"I don't believe it's my role to influence the decisions that are made in North Carolina that are not federal," Burr said.
Burr said Wednesday he's "been very consistent" on the issue, but was not a vocal public backer of last year's amendment. He co-sponsored a 2006 measure to amend the U.S. constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. In 2011, Burr criticized Obama's announcement that the Justice Department would not defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.
"Traditional marriage is a core value that has strengthened our nation, and it is a value that is protected by federal law," Burr said.
Hagan's position carries political risks. She was elected in 2008 on the day that Obama won North Carolina by just 14,000 votes, marking the first victory for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1976. But North Carolina was the only battleground state Obama lost last year to Mitt Romney on the way to re-election.
An Election Day exit poll of voters conducted for The Associated Press in November found that just one-third of voters said they supported same-sex marriage.
Hagan said she believes religious institutions should not have to conduct same-sex marriages if that is inconsistent with their religious beliefs.
"But I think as a civil institution, this issue's time has come and we need to move forward," Hagan said. "The fabric of North Carolina and what makes our state so special is our families and our common desire for a brighter future for our children. No matter what your family looks like, we all want the same thing for our families - happiness, health, prosperity, a bright future for our children and grandchildren."
Associated Press writers Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh and Henry C. Jackson in Washington contributed to this report.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio.