In comments that stunned many who heard them, Sen. Vincent J. Fumo said yesterday that his colleagues in the General Assembly would support slavery if given the chance.

The remarks came during an Appropriations Committee hearing in Harrisburg on a bill that would define marriage as between a man and a woman – a measure Fumo opposes.

"What you are advocating here is that we take away the rights of a minority. And I don't think that's right," Fumo told Gilbert Coleman, Jr., senior pastor of Freedom Christian Bible Fellowship in Philadelphia, during the hearing. ". . . If we introduced a bill on slavery, it might pass. That doesn't make it right."

"I doubt that sir," responded Coleman, who testified in support of the measure.

"Oh, don't bet on it in this General Assembly," the Philadelphia Democrat shot back. "I know some people up here, especially on a secret ballot, it would be almost unanimous."

Coleman said today that the comments caught him off guard and were "misguided."

"It certainly came out of left field," he said, adding that he nonetheless was not outraged at them "because of the source where it was coming from."

"They came from an angry man, angry over his own personal situation."

Today, Fumo said that he was "obviously exaggerating to make a point."

"If a majority would vote to approve slavery – as was done once in this country – that wouldn't make it right," he said. ". . .I wanted people at the hearing to face the fact that the denying human rights to any group, including homosexuals, at any point in our history, including in 2008, is wrong."

David Atkinson, a top aide to Sen. Gib Armstrong (R., Lancaster) who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said those present reacted "with disbelief at what they were hearing."

"It was kind of like watching an auto wreck while standing on the curb," he said. "It's not the kind of thing that you would ever anticipate."

Sen. Pat Browne (R., Lehigh) a member of the committee, said Fumo "let his passions get the best of him."

Asked if Fumo owes his colleagues in the House and Senate an apology, Browne said "If he is serious about those comments, then yes he does."

Fumo is retiring from the Senate this fall after 30 year in office to devote his attention to his September trial on 139 federal corruption counts.

Contact Mario Cattabiani at 717-787-5900 or mcattabiani@phillynews.com.