RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As we mentioned, the U.S. Supreme Court will help determine the legal status of same-sex marriages when it hears two cases this week. Among the 150 friend-of-the-court briefs filed to the Supreme Court on the issue, one stands out. A hundred and thirty-one prominent Republicans endorsed a position in support of gay marriage. This places them clearly at odds with the House GOP leadership and the Republican platform in the most recent election. The man who put the group together is Ken Mehlman. He's the former political director for the George W. Bush White House.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has more on the story.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: For years, Ken Mehlman forged a path as a Republican leader; chairman of the Republican National Committee, then head of the 2004 Bush re-election campaign. And all the while he had a secret. In August 2010, he came out of the closet and is now arguably the most high-profile openly gay Republican in the country.
He has used his newfound openness to promote what he calls the conservative case for gay marriage.
KEN MEHLMAN: It's amazing what happens when you make the case in terms that people who are on the right side of the political aisle find familiar, with voices that they find familiar. And they realize that if you believe in freedom, if you believe in limited government, if you believe in family values, then allowing adults who love each other to form families is something that makes a lot of sense.
TOTENBERG: Mehlman, a lawyer and businessman, is no stranger to the court. In fact, he helped get some of the conservative justices confirmed.
MEHLMAN: I thought that it would be beneficial for the justices to hear those of us who are judicial conservatives explaining why from our perspective, we thought Proposition 8 should be overturned.
TOTENBERG: Prop 8 is the California law banning same-sex marriages. Mehlman compares the right to marry to other fundamental rights conservatives embrace: the right to bear arms, and the right of corporate free speech, to spend unlimited amounts of money in candidate elections.
But what makes this brief different from others are the signers, an astonishing array of conservative names. Some have changed their minds about same-sex marriage, including former Utah governor and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, and Meg Whitman, who supported Prop 8 when she ran for governor of California. Then, too, there are the top policy officials from recent Republican administrations, and top political strategists for recent GOP campaigns like Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.
STEVE SCHMIDT: Over time, sure my position has changed on this. In 2004 and 2000, I was not a supporter of marriage equality. But over time, as you talk to gay people and you understand the importance that your marriage has in your life, why would you ever want to deny anyone that?
TOTENBERG: Alex Lundry, director of data science for the Romney presidential campaign, at age 35 is younger than Schmidt, and like most in his age group, has always supported same-sex marriage.
ALEX LUNDRY: I just think you're seeing an incredible inflexion point in the party. And I think there's some real soul-searching going on in the party in, you know, what does it mean for us to be conservative?
TOTENBERG: For Ken Mehlman though, the brief is a particular triumph. He is clearly embarrassed about the role he played in the 2004 presidential campaign, when the GOP aggressively moved to put bans on same-sex marriage on many state ballots in order to bring out the conservative base. And he has repeatedly apologized to gay rights activists. You can't change the past, he says. And it is hard not to see his passionate advocacy now as, in some measure, atonement.
Mehlman credits another long-time conservative, Ted Olson, with helping him to speak out. Olson achieved conservative rock star status when he won the landmark 2000 case of Bush versus Gore, putting George W. Bush in the White House. Then in 2009 Olson filed the legal challenge to California's ban on same-sex marriage, the case he'll be arguing in the Supreme Court this week. Because of that advocacy, Mehlman calls Olson his nightingale.
MEHLMAN: A nightingale is a bird that only sings when it hears other nightingales sing. And so, you'll never have one nightingale singing. And when Ted Olson made a conservative case for civil marriage for same-sex couples, a whole lot of folks - myself and others included - had the courage to also listen to that song and repeat it.
TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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