When Cooper opposed passage of the May 2012 amendment prohibiting same-sex marriages, which passed by a comfortable margin, he spoke mostly about the lack of clarity in its language, and had never addressed publicly his views on the issue itself.
But when asked over the weekend by The Associated Press in an interview whether he'd like to see the amendment repealed or a law passed to sanction same-sex marriage, Cooper said: "I support marriage equality."
Cooper is named as a defendant and is the state's lead designated attorney in a lawsuit filed by several same-sex couples that was recently expanded to challenge the constitutionality of the amendment in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision over the summer.
His announcement worries social conservative groups that supported the amendment's passage but aren't sure that Cooper will robustly defend the state in court. They are particularly unhappy with Cooper for agreeing to speak at next month's annual fundraiser for the gay-rights organization Equality North Carolina. While not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, Equality NC lobbies for expanding rights for gays and lesbians.
Cooper's planned Nov. 9 speech draws "into serious question the intent of the attorney general with respect to the lawsuit," North Carolina Family Policy Council executive director John Rustin said Monday.
"We believe it is inappropriate for him to participate in that event in that fashion while he is ... the lead defense attorney in a case that is attempting to overturn our marriage laws, which is a major goal and agenda of Equality North Caroilna," Rustin said in an interview.
Cooper, a Democrat who is laying the groundwork for a bid for governor in 2016, told the AP he speaks "with many diverse groups all over North Carolina about issues facing this state, and this is no different." Equality NC leaders asked him to speak, Cooper added.
Equality NC executive director Chris Sgro was ecstatic hearing of Cooper's personal support for expanding marriage to include same-sex couples, which is now granted in 13 states and the District of Columbia.
Sgro said Cooper "has long been an advocate for equal rights for all people and we applaud him for publicly aligning" with a "fast-growing majority" of state residents who support legal recognition for gay couples.
Although 61 percent of voters said yes to the constitutional amendment, Sgro dismissed the Family Policy Council as "a small minority" whose opposition to Cooper's gala appearance will energize Equality NC supporters.
Cooper, now in his 13th year as attorney general, said his office has successfully defended other laws from challenges with which he didn't necessarily agree. Cooper and other state attorneys last month filed a motion to have a judge dismiss the federal lawsuit, which also seeks to overturn a state law that says same-sex couples cannot be recognized as equal parents of children.
"You're not going to hear me talk about the legality or constitutionality of any of these statutes that are under litigation. I think it's important for me not to do that," Cooper said before addressing a Democratic Party function in Greensboro. "However, I will engage in public policy discussions and I want to do that."
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP legislative leaders already have expressed apprehension about Cooper's legal role.
The General Assembly passed a law this year giving itself the authority to defend itself in court with its own lawyers, rather than relying on Cooper's office. And McCrory announced he had hired a private attorney to work with Cooper defending litigation challenging an election overhaul bill that in part requires photo identification to vote in person in 2016.
McCrory general counsel Bob Stephens told reporters two weeks ago that Cooper's strong personal opposition to the elections law "compromised his ability to represent the state of North Carolina." Cooper said he can set aside his personal views to carry out his constitutional duties as the state's top lawyer.
Cooper's office didn't object in July to the American Civil Liberties Union and attorneys for six same-sex couples who sued over the adoption law to amend the lawsuit to challenge their prohibition to get married.
In last month's dismissal motion, state attorneys argued that regulation of marriage and child adoption are traditionally reserved to the states without federal intervention. Same-sex marriage or adoption rights are not fundamental rights, according to the motion.
"The right for a man and a woman to marry is fundamental, the right to other unions, including same-sex marriage, is not," reads the motion, submitted Sept. 11 on behalf of Cooper by four other state attorneys.