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Vice President Joe Biden has endorsed same-sex marriage, becoming the highest ranking American official to back marriage for gay and lesbian people. His comments signify a split within the Obama administration and may pave the way for President Obama — who says he supports civil unions and is still evolving on the matter — to also embrace equality.

Biden made his remarks during an appearance on Meet the Press, telling host David Gregory that he is “absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women.” He added, however, that “the President sets the policy” and did not say if he would support marriage in a second term. Biden credited the change-of-heart to the show Will & Grace, which aired on NBC from 1998 to 2006 and featured numerous gay characters:

GREGORY: Have your views evolved?

BIDEN: The good news is that as more and more Americans come to understand what this is all about is a simple proposition. Who do you love? Who do you love and will you be loyal to the person you love? And that’s what people are finding out what all marriages at their root are about. Whether they are marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals. […]

GREGORY: You’re comfortable with same-sex marriage now?

BIDEN: Look, I am Vice President of the United States of America. The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men marrying women are entitled to the same exact rights. All the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that. […] I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has done so far. People fear that is different and now they’re beginning to understand.

From the 05.06.2012 edition of NBC’s Meet The Press:

Biden has backed equal rights for the LGBT community throughout his career, but this is the first time he has publicly acknowledged his support of full marriage rights.

In December of 2010, Biden predicted, “I think the country’s evolving and I think there’s an inevitability for a national consensus on gay marriage.”

But when asked if he supports gay marriage during the 2008 Vice Presidential debate Biden was far more circumspect, saying, “No. Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that.” He even sought common ground with Sarah Palin on the issue and noted that both believe that “there should be no civil rights distinction, none whatsoever between a committed gay couple and a committed heterosexual couple.”

Gay and lesbian couples can wed in six states and the District of Columbia. Washington and Maryland both passed same-sex marriage laws in 2012, but they are currently being challenged by voter referenda.

h/t: Igor Volsky at Think Progress