Republican mayor says "I Do" to SSM:

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, a Republican, announced today that he's changed his mind and now supports gay marriage:

· I am here this afternoon to announce that I will sign the resolution that the City Council passed yesterday directing the City Attorney to file a brief in support of gay marriage.

· My plan, as has been reported publicly, was to veto that resolution, so I feel like I owe all San Diegans an explanation for this change of heart.

· During the campaign two years ago, I announced that I did not support gay marriage and instead supported civil unions and domestic partnerships.

· I have personally wrestled with that position ever since. My opinion on this issue has evolved significantly — as I think have the opinions of millions of Americans from all walks of life.

· In order to be consistent with the position I took during the mayoral election, I intended to veto the Council resolution. As late as yesterday afternoon, that was my position.

· The arrival of the resolution — to sign or veto — in my office late last night forced me to reflect and search my soul for the right thing to do. . . .

· As I reflected on the choices that I had before me last night, I just could not bring myself to tell an entire group of people in our community that they were less important, less worthy and less deserving of the rights and responsibilities of marriage — than anyone else — simply because of their sexual orientation. . . .

· I do believe that times have changed. And with changing time, and new life experiences, come different opinions. I think that's natural, and certainly it is true in my case. . . .

· I have close family members and friends who are members of the gay and lesbian community. These folks include my daughter Lisa and her partner, as well as members of my personal staff.

· I want for them the same thing that we all want for our loved ones — for each of them to find a mate whom they love deeply and who loves them back; someone with whom they can grow old together and share life's wondrous adventures.

· And I want their relationships to be protected equally under the law. In the end, I could not look any of them in the face and tell them that their relationships — their very lives — were any less meaningful than the marriage that I share with my wife Rana.

[Thanks to journalist Rex Wockner for providing the text of the mayor's message.]

Leave aside for now the merits of the California marriage litigation San Diego will now support. Leave aside also the tactical question whether a pro-gay marriage ruling from the California Supreme Court would be worth the risk of a backlash producing a state constitutional amendment banning both gay marriage and civil unions.

A couple of things in the mayor's statement really stand out. First, he is willing to reconsider his views about even fundamental matters in light of experience, and allow those views to evolve and adapt over time. It's obvious that Sanders' personal experience with gay people among his friends, staff, and family has had a deep effect on his view about marriage. He no longer sees gay marriage as alien to marriage because he has seen gay relationships up close. Second, in light of his experience, Sanders sees no meaningful distinction between his own marriage and the relationships gay people form.

Years ago, Michael Sandel distinguished liberal toleration from moral argument. Mayor Sanders' claims are not liberal arguments for toleration of nasty behavior. They are substantive and highly contested claims about the good of lasting homosexual relationships. They do not argue for some formal equality or abstract liberty by trying to bracket the question whether homosexual acts are immoral; instead, they confront the moral objection to homosexuality itself.

Liberal toleration was sufficient to convince Americans (including their courts) to do away with stigmatizing and pointless sodomy laws. That's why the laws could be eliminated in a country in which the majority of the population still viewed homosexual acts as immoral. Doing so simply signaled tolerance. Liberal tolerance might even be enough to sustain support for civil unions.

But allowing gay marriage goes further because it affixes a stamp of approval. The most committed opponents of gay marriage understand this, and that's precisely why they oppose it. Maggie Gallagher once said that losing on gay marriage means "losing American civilization." Losing gay marriage for Gallagher and others means not just losing on some words in the family code or on some legal debate over how to define fundamental rights. It means losing a world-view. The advantage they have in public debate is that they address the moral questions that matter to people, while gay marriage supporters are trained to recite the oath to liberal tolerance: "The government should not legislate morality." That line worked with sodomy laws but it won't work with marriage. Americans understand marriage itself to "legislate morality," so arguing amorally for gay marriage is like arguing for touchdowns in a baseball game.

It's possible for those with moral objections to homosexual acts to support gay marriage as good policy. But for most Americans, supporting gay marriage will mean seeing it and the love of gay couples it memorializes as good things, as moral things, not as merely neutral things, and certainly not as distasteful things we must abide as the price of preserving individual liberty and pluralism. They will have to cross the gap between tolerance and acceptance, which one Republican mayor has now done.

UPDATE: Video of Mayor Jerry Sanders' emotional announcement is available here.