Opponents of gay marriage at the State Capitol are offering a compromise: Legalize same-sex civil unions in Minnesota instead.
Legislation introduced Wednesday by a group of moderate and Libertarian-leaning Republicans and one DFLer would enshrine civil unions — "a civil contract between two parties" — in state law next to marriage — "a civil contract between a man and a woman."
Civil union supporters say their bill would ensure comparable legal and civil rights for gay couples while sidestepping the bitter debate over redefining the concept of marriage.
But House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, dismissed the proposal as "an idea whose time has passed." Supporters of same-sex marriage are infuriated at the last-minute maneuver which comes as they are attempting to build support for a vote on legalizing gay marriage in coming weeks.
Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, a chief sponsor of the bill who voted against last year's proposal to put a ban on same-sex marriage in the state's Constitution, said the state statutes are full of "injustices" and discrimination against same-sex couples. But he questioned whether the state is ready to legalize such unions. "We've put all our eggs in one basket, proposing a gay marriage bill," Kelly said. "If that fails, there's no fallback plan."
But Thissen said the civil union bill "would simply create a new separate and unequal category for same-sex couples in our state. That is not acceptable to those like me, who support full marriage equality for all Minnesotans, and it will not have broad support in the Minnesota House of Representatives." The conversation both in Minnesota and nationally, he said, has already turned to whether or not committed couples deserve the freedom to marry.
Kelly said his opposition to last year's constitutional ban — he was one of just four House Republicans to vote against it — was rooted in his belief that government should not have a role in defining marriage, and that it would be "hypocritical" to support redefining it to include same-sex marriage.
Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, also campaigned against the constitutional ban. She says her promises then — that a vote against the amendment would not be a vote for gay marriage — have come back to haunt her now that legalizing same-sex marriage is on the legislative agenda. Norton said that after surveying her district she believes there is more support for civil unions than for either legalizing or banning gay marriage.
"People want to do something, but they're just not yet comfortable with 'marriage,' " Norton said. "They see it as a religious expression." Norton said she does not know how she would vote if the gay marriage bill were to come up on the House floor today. "I'm trying to listen to my constituents and respond to what they're telling me, because it's representative government, it's not just Kim Norton gets to come to the Capitol and inflict her will on the state," Norton said.
Minnesotans United, the group that fought the marriage amendment and now is now pushing for legalization, blasted the civil union bill.
"Minnesotans United strongly opposes any attempt to legally classify committed gay and lesbian couples and their families as second-class citizens in our state," Minnesotans United spokesman Jake Loesch said in a statement. "It is contradictory to our values as Minnesotans to deem some Minnesotans worthy of marriage while others are only good enough for 'civil unions.' "
Gay marriage opponents weren't ready to embrace the civil union bill, either. Autumn Leva, spokeswoman for Minnesotans for Marriage, said her group would need to review the legislation, but said civil unions still present problems for employers and others who strongly oppose same-sex unions.
"We are glad folks are talking about alternatives to same-sex marriage," she said.
The civil union bill is co-authored by Republican Reps. Pat Garofalo of Farmington, Andrea Kieffer of Woodbury and Denny McNamara of Hastings. Because the deadline for introducing bills has passed, it is unclear whether the bill will get a hearing. There is not yet a companion bill in the Senate.