SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said Wednesday it's "inevitable" that same-sex marriages will be recognized nationwide, but he stopped short of criticizing state officials for fighting the issue in court.
"I think that's inevitable. I think we're on a pathway," the supporter of same-sex marriage said when asked about Utah's battle on behalf of a voter-approved constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
"That's my own personal opinion. It may not be the opinion of your duly elected officials," Huntsman said. "You have to defer to your duly elected officials to decide where they want to go on it."
The 2012 GOP presidential candidate spoke to reporters after presenting boxes of science and technology equipment to a fourth-grade class at Rose Park Elementary School, donated through Chevron USA Inc.'s "Fuel Your School" program.
The program is expected to raise up to $500,000 for schools in Salt Lake and Davis counties through $1 contributions for every sale of eight gallons or more of gasoline in October at participating Chevron and Texaco stations.
Huntsman, a member of Chevron's board of directors, shook the hands of the children in the class and talked to some of them about their career plans, including Grace Lugo, who came to the U.S. from Mexico just over a year ago.
"A doctor," Grace said, describing the type of person she wants to become as someone "helping the people."
"That's the best kind," Huntsman said, later making a point of showing her a microscope pulled from the boxes of equipment. "You're going to have to get used to using this," he said, as Grace beamed.
Rose Park Principal Nicole Warren said it was "incredibly exciting" having a former governor and U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama visit the school.
Warren had to explain to the students that a governor is like a president of a state, but said for them, his being in their classroom shows people "care about their learning."
Huntsman joins Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in labeling same-sex marriage as inevitable.
Hatch said in May that anybody who doesn't believe that "just isn't living in the real world," even though he disagrees with rulings favoring gay marriage because of the erosion of religious rights.
Most people recognize where the issue is headed, Huntsman said. "But that's not to say at the interim you're not going to have court cases and pretty heated debates. I think that's just a given."
Huntsman, who backed civil unions for gay couples as governor in 2009 and same-sex marriage in 2013, said the debate over the issue that is taking place both in and out of the courts is still necessary.
"(I've) already spoken out why I think it's the right thing to do to recognize same-sex marriage. But these things don't happen overnight. It's step-by-step and it's an evolution that, in this case, is taking us somewhere."
Still Huntsman recalled being "clobbered" for the stand he took in favor of civil unions after being elected to a second term and said he never imagined then that the issue would have advanced as much as it has.
"If you had told me we would be where we are today in the evolution of this discussion, I would have said, 'No way,'" Huntsman said. His views changed, too, and by 2013 he was calling for conservatives to push to legalize same-sex marriage.
Utah's Amendment 3 was struck down by a federal judge in December, a ruling upheld by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Both the state and the plaintiffs in the case have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.
Gov. Gary Herbert, who served as Huntsman's lieutenant governor and is a supporter of traditional marriage, has said the issue needs to be decided by the Supreme Court.
Huntsman also said another bid for the White House in 2016 is a "strong no" and ruled out running for office again in Utah. He also declined to endorse a Republican in the race including the party's nominee in 2012, Mitt Romney.
There are efforts to draft Romney into running again even though the former Utah Olympic leader has also said he has no interest in what would be a third race for president.
"It's an open market. Anyone can compete if they've got the right formula," Huntsman said of another Romney run. "We'll see. Anything is possible in politics, I guess."