Rapid shift on gay marriage in MinnesotaJust six months after Minnesota voters turned back an effort to ban gay weddings, lawmakers are poised to make the state the first in the Midwest to pass a law allowing them.
By: Patrick Condon and Brian Bakst, Duluth News Tribune
ST. PAUL — Just six months after Minnesota voters turned back an effort to ban gay weddings, lawmakers are poised to make the state the first in the Midwest to pass a law allowing them.
The startling shift comes amid a rapid evolution of public opinion nationally in the debate over marriage. But with Minnesota and possibly Illinois set to broaden the definition to include same-sex couples, coastal states may soon have some company in enacting changes.
In November, voters unexpectedly defeated a measure that would have banned same-sex marriage in the Minnesota Constitution, even after more than two-dozen states passed similar bans. That prompted gay-marriage supporters to quickly go on offense.
Those efforts culminate today with a vote in the state House that Democratic leaders assured would pass. With the state Senate expected to follow suit on Monday, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, who has indicated his support, could sign a bill as early as next week.
“We like to lead the way in Minnesota,” said state Rep. Karen Clark, the Minneapolis Democrat sponsoring the bill.
In the past week, Rhode Island and Delaware became the 10th and 11th states to approve gay marriage. But so far, only legislatures in coastal or New England states have voted affirmatively for gay marriage.
Except for Iowa, which allows gay marriage because of a 2009 judicial ruling, same-sex couples can’t get married in flyover country.
Minnesota might go first, but Illinois could be close behind. The state Senate there voted in February to allow same-sex marriage, and supporters think they’re close to securing the votes needed to get it through the House and on to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who says he’ll sign it.
So far, only one Republican member of Minnesota’s Legislature is a definite yes on gay marriage. But with the House vote looming, the bill’s backers said they would accept a handful of GOP-sponsored religious protections that could help them win over a few more Republicans.
On Wednesday, the group lobbying to pass the bill threw its weight behind a proposed change that gives more comfort to churches opposing same-sex marriage and could make it easier for Republicans to support it.
An amendment from GOP Rep. David FitzSimmons suggests reframing the bill’s proposed changes to Minnesota’s marriage laws, swapping in the term “civil marriages” in all instances whether couples are of the same or different genders.
Richard Carlbom, director of Minnesotans United, the lobby group pushing for gay marriage, told the Associated Press that the group is backing the amendment. It’s meant to guarantee that religious organizations couldn’t be fined, punished or stripped of special status for refusing to perform gay marriages.
The group’s support is critical for the success of the amendment, which has the potential to draw Republican support for the bill. A religious protection clause had been in the bill, but some Republicans thought it wasn’t strong enough.
“It just makes it clear we’re talking about civil marriage, not religious,” Carlbom said. He said it’s superior to another Republican proposal, to allow civil unions, which gay marriage supporters said would relegate gay couples to a substitute version of marriage.
While the measure’s advocates stress they are confident they have the votes to pass the bill, a secondary goal has been to attract Republican lawmakers so the bill doesn’t come off as driven by a partisan agenda.
Two key House Democrats — Rep. Karen Clark, the House sponsor of the bill, and Majority Leader Erin Murphy — said they also support the amendment offered by FitzSimmons.
Clark assured gay-marriage supporters that the language wouldn’t undermine their goal by making it a lesser standard.
“It’s not civil unions by any means,” she said.
Sen. Branden Petersen of Andover is the lone Republican on record supporting the bill. He said the FitzSimmons amendment was crafted to win a few more votes from his side of the aisle.
Last fall’s defeat of the gay-marriage ban ended a nearly decade-long push by social conservatives for stronger prohibitions on gay marriage. But the massive activist and fundraising network built to defeat the amendment has now been harnessed to get it through the Legislature.
“Our opponents did us a huge favor,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, the bill’s Senate sponsor. “They really accelerated the whole issue.”
It was the heavily populated Twin Cities area that delivered most of the votes against the constitutional gay-marriage ban. The ban got huge support from more rural parts of the state, populated with higher concentrations of seniors, religious and socially conservative voters.
But in recent days, a handful of House and Senate Democrats from rural districts have announced plans to vote for the bill. Rep. Joe Radinovich, a 27-year-old freshman Democrat from Crosby, acknowledged he would alienate some constituents when he votes for gay marriage.
“‘I know there are people who voted for me last year that won’t vote for me next year because of this,” said Radinovich, who beat his Republican opponent by just 323 votes. “But I’m not going to start my political career by voting ‘no’ on something I know in my heart that I support.”