Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) announced Tuesday that he supports same-sex marriage. (Bill Zars / Associated Press )
WASHINGTON — Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) on Tuesday announced that he supports gay marriage, joining a growing list of U.S. senators who offer such support.
"When I climbed the Capitol steps in January, I promised myself that I would return to the Senate with an open mind and greater respect for others,” he said in a statement.
"Same-sex couples should have the right to civil marriage. Our time on this Earth is limited, I know that better than most. Life comes down to who you love and who loves you back -- government has no place in the middle," Kirk said.
Kirk, from the Chicago suburbs, climbed the steps of the Capitol to return to the Senate almost a year after a major stroke and lengthy period of rehabilitation. He was elected in 2010 to the Senate after nearly 10 years in the House.
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Kirk's decision brings to 50 the number of U.S. senators who support gay marriage, including 46 Democrats, two independents and two Republicans, according to Charlie Joughin, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights group that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Thomas Carper of Delaware became the 46th Democrat Tuesday morning.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is the only other Republican senator to support gay marriage.
Illinois' other senator, Democrat Dick Durbin, told National Public Radio recently that the issue was the "civil rights question of our time." Durbin said friends he'd become close to over the years now were in committed relationships and called them "good people, some raising children."
During his 2010 Senate race, Kirk said he supported civil unions, opposed gay marriage and endorsed the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
The act, which passed in 1996 -- before Kirk entered Congress – prevents legally married gay couples from receiving federal benefits.
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Last week the Supreme Court heard two major cases involving same-sex marriage and after oral arguments, appeared poised to strike down that part of DOMA.
While in the House, Kirk voted against the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which had banned gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
But Kirk, a commander in the Naval Reserve, reversed his position after he was elected to the Senate in November 2010, becoming one of eight GOP lawmakers to vote in favor of repealing the ban.
Later he turned down a White House invitation to attend a ceremony during which President Obama signed the historic repeal into law.
A group called Freedom to Marry, which supports gay marriage, issued a statement Tuesday from its founder and president, Evan Wolfson, praising Kirk's announcement.
"With Sen. Kirk's support, the U.S. Senate is now ready to move to the right side of history in support of same-sex couples' freedom to marry," Wolfson wrote.
"Sen. Kirk's heartfelt words about values of treating others as we'd all want to be treated in our precious time on this planet powerfully make the case for the freedom to marry -- and the need for decision-makers to end marriage discrimination in the United States."
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