A lawsuit seeking to legalize gay marriage in Minnesota will go to trial after a state Court of Appeals ruling on Monday overturned the suit's dismissal by a Hennepin County judge.

"We have achieved a great victory today," said Peter Nickitas, a Minneapolis lawyer handling the case for Marry Me Minnesota, a nonprofit group consisting of plaintiffs in the case. "We're back in the District Court, and we're fighting it out."

The suit, filed on behalf of three same-sex couples, will now return to Hennepin County District Court, where it will proceed to trial just as debate heats up over a statewide vote this fall to ban gay marriage in Minnesota.

The ruling, which is based on procedural grounds and doesn't address the issue of gay marriage itself, could wind up being a double-edged sword for the plaintiffs. Opponents of same-sex marriage say it will bolster their campaign to pass the gay-marriage ban.

"It's exactly the type of case that's resulting in same-sex marriage being imposed in other states, and it completely highlights the need for a marriage amendment in Minnesota," said Chuck Darrell, spokesman for Minnesota For Marriage, a coalition of groups against gay marriage.

And the state's best-known gay activist group warned that it believes litigation is a strategy rife with trouble for supporters of same-sex marriage.

Phil Duran, legal director for OutFront Minnesota, said he's sympathetic to the plaintiffs but believes their case could set back the cause of gay marriage. That's because the case eventually could land at the Minnesota Supreme Court, a panel of judges Duran called mostly conservative who probably would defer to the state high court's 1971 ruling against same-sex marriage.

"Most legal analysts believe that, in all likelihood, means they would rule against the plaintiffs and have the potential to set back [gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender] equality," Duran said. "At this point, our main focus has to be on the amendment. If the voters approve the amendment in November, it renders the plaintiffs' lawsuit moot entirely."

Plaintiff Douglas Benson disagreed. "You're never going to have all the ideal circumstances emerging, so you just have to go forward," Benson said. "There are going to be setbacks -- there have been setbacks already -- but now we've won this particular battle and we'll see what the next step holds."

Granted their day in court

The suit was filed nearly two years ago by Benson and Duane Gajewski of Robbinsdale; Thomas Trisko and John Rittman of Minneapolis, and Jessica Dykhuis and Lindzi Campbell of Duluth along with their 2-year-old son Sean.

Benson and Gajewski, and Trisko and Rittman, were married in Canada.

All three couples were denied marriage licenses by Hennepin County officials, who cited Minnesota's 1997 law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The couples argued that the state's Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional.

District Judge Mary DuFresne dismissed the lawsuit last March, rejecting the couples' claims on the basis of Baker vs. Nelson, a 1971 Minnesota Supreme Court decision that said limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples does not violate the U.S. Constitution.

In the 15-page decision released on Monday that partly approved and partly reversed the trial court decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that DuFresne improperly relied on the Baker case. Since Baker, Judge Renee Worke wrote, the U.S. Supreme Court has indicated that "moral disapproval of a class because of sexual orientation cannot be a legitimate government purpose that equal protection requires."

The couples should be granted a chance in District Court to prove that their rights were violated, she concluded.

"Even if the right to marry is not considered a fundamental right, appellants should have been granted an opportunity to show that MN DOMA is not a reasonable means to its stated objective -- to promote opposite-sex marriages to encourage procreation," Worke wrote.

Nickitas said the case will now return to trial court, and, if halted by another dismissal, will be appealed again.

"We told the Court of Appeals what we wanted, and they listened," he said.

kduchschere@startribune.com • 612-673-4455 asimons@startribune.com • 612-673-4921