ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The state Senate on Wednesday approved a statewide vote in 2012 on a gay marriage ban in the Minnesota Constitution, pushing forward what’s expected to be a contentious debate over the definition of legal unions.
The Senate voted 38-27 in favor of the marriage amendment, with one Democrat joining all Republicans in support. The state House is expected to vote on the issue soon, and passage is likely in the Republican-led chamber.
State law already confines marriage in Minnesota to one man and one woman. But supporters of that definition said the extra protection is needed to guard against judicial rulings like one that legalized gay marriage in Iowa in 2009. Critics said it would enshrine discrimination in the state’s most important document, and that the debate between now and November 2012 would be divisive and a distraction from more important issues facing the state.
The Senate debate stretched past three hours, with numerous Democrats citing gay family members and friends in opposition to the amendment. At a press conference following the Senate vote, several Democratic senators had tears in their eyes.
But Sen. Warren Limmer, chief sponsor of the Senate bill, said no one should fear leaving the ultimate decision to the public.
“Quite honestly, the definition of marriage is so encompassing and it’s such a part of our society and our fabric that this issue would be cheapened by letting a small group of politicians or judges to define marriage, when we have a third option,” said Limmer, R-Maple Grove. “The third option is to give it to the public.”
Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, said prohibiting gay marriage in the state constitution “does not prevent gays and lesbians to live as they choose in our state as they do now.” He said gay couples could still jointly own property, ensure hospital visitation rights and invoke other right granted to married couples through the use of legal contracts.
But Sen. Scott Dibble, the Minneapolis Democrat who is the Senate’s only openly gay member, said that was not sufficient to gay Minnesotans who are seeking simple fairness. He challenged Republican colleagues to cite examples of ways in which gay relationships threaten more traditional families.
“What’s so different about us?” Dibble asked as he held up a picture of himself and his partner. “What’s such a problem? The truth about our relationship is we work hard every single day at our jobs. We’ve been there for each other. We made a lifetime commitment based in love, a commitment and a promise made in front of our families and made in front of God.”
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, pointed out that many Fortune 500 companies, including several in Minnesota, now use domestic partner benefits and other inclusive policies to attract employees. He said by pushing the constitutional ban, Republicans are contradicting their party’s message that attracting and keeping jobs is the top priority of the current legislative session.
“This would send a strong message, and precisely the wrong message, to potential employees around the world that Minnesota is not a welcoming place to do business and bring your families,” Latz said.
The long Senate floor debate was dominated by Democrats criticizing the amendment, with few Republicans speaking on the matter. The few Republicans who spoke mostly limited themselves to arguing that the public deserved a vote on the issue, avoiding discussions of the pros or cons of gay marriage itself.
Limmer, in a press conference after the vote, did say he would personally vote in favor of the amendment assuming it gets on the ballot, “simply because I don’t believe marriage should be defined that way,” he said of gay unions.
Dibble said he thought Republicans steered away from explicitly moral arguments because of rapid shifts in public opinion polling nationwide in favor of gay marriage. “They’re being steered by a strong vocal minority that they know is wrong,” he said.
Despite the perception of changing opinion, the 31 states that have voted on constitutional gay marriage bans have all passed them. Dibble and his allies said they believed Minnesota had the potential to be the first to vote one down. But most said they did not relish what Sen. Linda Higgins predicted would be a “long, divisive and bitter debate” — one likely to attract attention and a steady stream of political spending from national groups on both sides of the issue.
The ballot measure has the potential to drive up voter turnout, but that could cut both ways — bringing out both conservatives and liberals with strong feelings on the issue.
A single Democrat, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf of Plummer, joined every Senate Republican in supporting the amendment. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has said he opposes the amendment, but governors can’t block lawmakers from putting constitutional amendments on the ballot.
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