By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Carolina's Kay Hagan on Wednesday became the sixth Democratic senator to endorse gay marriage this week as the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases on the issue.
"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 said in a statement on her Facebook page on Wednesday.
Public opinion polls show a majority of Americans believe that homosexuals should have the right to wed and more politicians are declaring themselves in favor of same-sex marriage rights.
Chief Justice John Roberts alluded to the evolving positions on the issue during oral arguments on Wednesday in one of the cases, citing political support for same-sex marriage as evidence that gays and lesbians were not a vulnerable group requiring special protections.
"As far as I can tell, political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case," Roberts said to Roberta Kaplan, the lawyer representing Edith Windsor, a lesbian widow seeking federal benefits in one of the cases.
The justices indicated interest in striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
The Supreme Court also heard arguments on Tuesday on California's Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage.
Support for same-sex marriage varies between states, and Hagan's decision could have bearing on her re-election race next year.
North Carolina, which backed Republican Mitt Romney - an opponent of gay marriage - in the November 2012 presidential election, and voters there also strongly backed a measure in May 2012 prohibiting both civil unions and domestic partnerships.
Five other Senate Democrats - Mark Begich of Alaska, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana and Mark Warner of Virginia - have also announced their support for gay marriage in the last few days.
Their backing left only about 10 of the 55 members of the Senate Democratic caucus who have not endorsed same-sex marriage, reflecting a shift in public sentiment.
President Barack Obama announced that he approved of gay marriage in May 2012.
Republicans, who are generally more socially conservative than Democrats, remain largely opposed.
Ohio Senator Rob Portman became one of the most prominent Republican politicians to back gay marriage rights when he announced his support in mid-March, two years after his son told him he was gay.
Hagan compared her decision to Portman's in her statement on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Eric Beech)