ST. PAUL -- Months after Indiana provoked a national uproar with a law allowing people to refuse service to same-sex couples, a Minnesota senator on Thursday proposed a similar - but more limited - measure here.
State Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said business owners with strong opposition to same-sex marriage shouldn’t be forced to cater to those ceremonies.
“I was one of the legislators who opposed gay marriage, but even then I said that gays and lesbians should be able to live as they choose,” Gazelka said. “I’m simply asking that Christians and people of faith be allowed to live as they choose without ... threat of punishment.”
His bill would protect the right of religious organizations and small businesses to refuse service for same-sex weddings.
That’s not a hypothetical situation: Last year, a Little Falls lodge had to pay a settlement after the state Department of Human Rights found it had discriminated by refusing to host a same-sex wedding.
Unlike the bills in Indiana and other states, Gazelka’s legislation would provide protections only for weddings and not create a broader right to refuse service where someone had strong conscientious objections.
The Legislature legalized same-sex marriage in 2013 after voters rejected a gay marriage ban in 2012. State law prohibits discrimination against sexual orientation, a provision Gazelka’s bill would create a limited exception to in the case of “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
OutFront Minnesota, a gay-rights organization, said it opposed Gazelka’s bill.
“This bill is not treating LGBTQ people and their families well,” said Monica Meyer, OutFront’s executive director, using an acronym that refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people and those questioning their sexuality. “We see this as an attack on the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.”
Introducing the bill now, less than two weeks from the scheduled end of the 2015 legislative session, means lawmakers will take no action this year. But the proposal will remain alive when the Legislature returns next year.
Aware of the backlash in other states, Gazelka said he tried to “build consensus” on the issue and spoke with DFL lawmakers and gay-rights groups about the measure. Those efforts failed to find any support for the bill, which is sponsored only by Republicans. In addition to Gazelka, sponsors of the bill are Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, and Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, the sponsor of the 2013 law legalizing same-sex marriage, called Gazelka’s measure “unfortunate” and divisive.
“It’s unfortunate he’s putting a stink bomb right in front of the Legislature at this point in the session,” Dibble said.
Gazelka said he “tried to address any area where potentially there was a problem” by writing exceptions into the bill:
- Religious organizations would not have to recognize same-sex marriages - but could not deny same-sex spouses visitation rights or the ability to make health care decisions.
- Only businesses with fewer than 20 employees would be protected from providing services to same-sex weddings, not bigger corporations, and even those businesses would not be exempt if there were no other businesses that could provide the service within 30 miles.
Those concessions didn’t ease the opposition.
“Providing a commercial service doesn’t mean that the religious owner is endorsing any of their customers at all,” Meyer said. “They’re just providing a commercial service.
“Our country always does better when we treat people equally, whether you own a small business or you’re an employer,” she said.
Meyer said she met with Gazelka last year and appreciated his willingness to talk, but she said she wasn’t swayed to support his proposal or stay neutral.
Top Republican leaders kept their distance Thursday.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he didn’t “know the first thing about” Gazelka’s bill. Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said he agrees “with the concept” of protecting the rights of conscience of people opposed to same-sex marriage but hadn’t yet “looked at the text” of the proposal.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service