Marriage is probably on ice for now

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 17, 2012 - 4:49 PM

Despite talk, recognition for same-sex couples likely isn't on the DFL agenda.

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In this Nov. 7, 2012 file photo, Minnesotans United for All Families who oppose the gay marriage amendment cheer as the screen shows the "no" vote leading during the election night watch party in St. Paul, Minn. Minnesota lawmakers got a strong pulse of where their constituents stand in the statewide vote on a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. That knowledge will give some legislators cover and others concern in future gay rights debates, including a possible push for legalization of gay marriage.

Photo: Jim Mone, Associated Press - Ap

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"It's as if they put this whole thing on steroids," one well-seasoned Minnesota political hand said to another.

The occasion was a funeral. The whispered topic in the pew near mine was same-sex marriage and the defeat of a constitutional amendment to forbid it.

I leaned to listen.

"That amendment is going to go down as one of the great political blunders in this state's history," said the other. "Minnesota wouldn't be close to legalizing gay marriage today if it weren't for the people who opposed gay marriage trying to ban it in the Constitution."

A mostly cogent analysis, thought I as the organ's peals brought the exchange to an end.

Historians are bound to describe the GOP amendment gambit of 2011-12 as political folly. Voters not only rejected both the marriage amendment and its ballot companion, a constitutional requirement that citizens show a government-issued photo ID card before being allowed to vote, they also spurned enough of the amendment's legislative patrons to put DFLers back in charge at the Capitol. They appeared to buy the DFL argument that the Republicans had reached too deeply into their own partisan bag of tricks.

Republicans believed the marriage amendment would energize their base. They didn't consider that it would give the other political side an even stronger jolt.

For wonkish fun, I compared 2012 and 2010 turnout in five precincts in and near college campuses in Minneapolis, St. Cloud, Duluth, Northfield and Collegeville. A total vote gain of at least 40 percent occurred in each of those youth-dominated precincts. In Ward 3, Precinct 1 in Minneapolis, the surge was phenomenal -- 2,196 voters this year, compared with only 799 voters in 2010.

(Those numbers actually tell two stories. One is about the drawing power of Vote No among young, well-educated Minnesotans. The other is about the DFL failure to turn out its base in 2010 -- something fellows named Dayton and Franken will want to correct.)

Worth noting is the method behind Vote No's success. Minnesotans United for All Families deployed thousands of volunteers to simply talk about love and marriage with their fellow Minnesotans. People who might have been secretive about their sexuality five or 10 years ago found themselves confiding their dream of legally marrying the person they love in the state they love.

They got Minnesotans who seldom thought before about same-sex marriage to think: It's not really so much to ask.

Those conversations are what put this state's pokey, back-burner consideration of same-sex marriage "on steroids," as my pew analyst said.

But does that mean Minnesota is "close to legalizing gay marriage"?

It's certainly closer than it was a year ago. But my bet is that the new DFL majorities in the House and Senate will be in no hurry to take up a repeal of the state's Defense of Marriage Act, the statutory same-sex marriage ban that's been on the books since 1997.

Truth be told, despite a 38-29 majority in the Senate and 73-61 edge in the House, DFLers may not have the votes to pull off a prompt DOMA repeal. It isn't lost on legislators that "yes" carried 75 of the state's 87 counties -- the rural share -- many with more than 60 percent of the vote. Some of those counties are now represented by DFLers -- and DFL leaders want to keep it that way.

They just won an election by accusing Republicans of social-issue overreach. They know that in the eyes of the 47.43 percent of Minnesotans who voted "yes" on the marriage ban, repealing DOMA would make them guilty of the same crime.

Further, they've heard from a few "no" voters who cast that vote in the assurance that it wouldn't change anything -- because DOMA is still on the books.

State Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, has sponsored bills to legalize same-sex marriage in previous sessions. He plans to push his colleagues to take the marriage plunge next year. He says delay will only perpetuate discrimination against a long-persecuted minority and disappoint the people who proudly planted signs on their lawns urging, "Don't limit the freedom to marry."

He makes a fine argument. But it will run headlong into this one: Next year is a budget-setting year, and ought to be a tax reform and bonding catchup year, too. There's more than enough controversy to be found in those minefields without wandering into social issues.

Next year also could bring a U.S. Supreme Court decision that gets legislators in every state off the DOMA hook. I don't think Minnesotans ought to root for that denouement, however. The long-running abortion fight shows what happens when the courts move on social issues before a broad majority of the population is ready to move, too. Change that's grounded in the grass-roots is more durable, less divisive and less disruptive to democracy.

One of the messages of the election just passed is that Minnesotans want elected officials to do their jobs. That message strikes me as the proper watchword for Minnesota's next move on same-sx marriage.

If legislators do their jobs, DOMA repeal bills will be granted hearings. People on both sides will be respectfully heard. Legislators will seek out their constituents' views and willingly share their own.

The activists who engineered the impressive "vote no" campaign should keep talking about love, commitment and family with their fellow Minnesotans, especially in those 75 "vote yes" counties. As the leaders of that campaign urged in an e-mail to supporters last week, "We must now continue the conversation with Minnesotans across the state in their homes, where they work, in their places of worship, and at the State Capitol. ... Talk about how nothing says 'We are family' like marriage."

Do those things, and the answer to the question "When should Minnesota legalize same-sex marriage?" will become clear.

• • •

A note to readers: This column will be on hiatus for the remainder of the year while I work on a book project. Happy holidays, and see you in January.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She can be reached at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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