Gay marriage debate grips Capitol

A Senate panel OK'd proposed constitutional amendment after hours of intense testimony.

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Hundreds of Minnesotans from the two sides of the gay marriage issue jammed a Capitol hearing room Friday, and both passionately assured lawmakers that God and justice are on their side.

They came to argue for and against a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

"I'm here to pray for the marriage amendment because family is the bedrock of society. If it falls apart, so will the society," said Janis Hackman, a retired teacher from Centerville, Minn., who came to watch.

"Why isn't my daughter's family worthy of support?" countered Bruce Ause, a Red Wing resident who has a lesbian daughter, before the proceedings started.

After hours of testimony, a panel of lawmakers debated -- and approved -- the amendment.

The near-perennial fight is newly charged this year as Republicans control the Legislature, giving backers little doubt that the amendment will be before the voters in 2012. It takes approval from a simple majority of lawmakers to get an amendment on the ballot.

That certainty only heightened the intensity.

"This is without doubt an emotional issue," said Republican Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. He began the three-hour hearing by warning the activist crowd that security officials were present and prepared to act.

The crowd let their emotions spill but kept it peaceful.

"Same-sex marriage redefines marriage, and same-sex marriage redefines parenthood," said Jennifer Roback Morse, who works at an outreach arm of the National Organization for Marriage.

"I'm at a loss for words how to appeal to your humanity," Rosemount resident Jeff Wilfahrt told lawmakers. His gay son, Andrew, was a soldier killed in Afghanistan two months ago. "Minnesota's better than that."

Businesses drawn into debate

Opponents brought a new and potentially powerful argument to the fore: Money.

Nearly four dozen House Democrats said Friday that a constitutional amendment ban is a business issue.

In a letter sent to the heads of Minnesota's largest business organizations, the signatories said businesses, many of which offer employees same-sex partner benefits, would be unable to do so if the amendment passed.

"We write to request your leadership in stopping this misguided proposal," read the letter to the Minnesota Business Partnership's Charlie Weaver and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce's David Olson.

That help is unlikely to come soon.

"This is simply not an issue that we focus on," said Weaver. He added that Partnership members likely would weigh in on both sides.

Bill Blazer, senior vice president of the Chamber, said it has not taken a position or spent time on the amendment but could if members ask it to do so.

Gay rights organizations already have proved their muscle with businesses.

They rallied last year after Minnesota-based Target Corp. gave $150,000 to a group supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate and gay marriage opponent Tom Emmer. Target eventually apologized, reaffirmed its commitment to gay rights and rewrote its political giving program.

But the damage was done. Customers called for boycotts and cut up their Target cards on YouTube. Months later, music sensation Lady Gaga reportedly broke off a Target deal because of the political donation.

Of this year's amendment, Target spokesperson Jessica Carlson said: "We are monitoring the situation, but we don't have a stance to share."

Opponents also may have time on their side. Over the last decade, amid deep contentious debate, the nation's mood has changed on gay marriage. Where once the majority of backers were against it, now there is a clear split.

"I'm a self-identified Republican, and I'm straight," Madeline Koch told the committee when she testified against the amendment. The 24-year-old who works at a Fortune 500 company said her generation believes gay marriage is a "human right."

She was one of only a handful of the 24 who testified to win a roar of approval from the large crowds watching the hearing.

"Public opinion is moving quickly toward full equality," she said.

Against 'intent of ... God'

Her testimony had little bearing on the outcome; the committee passed the measure, 8-4, on partisan lines.

Supporters, nearly all of them members of the clergy, argued that same-sex marriage violates tenets of the Torah, the Bible and the Qur'an and that it will irreparably harm families and children.

Such marriages run counter to "the intent of Almighty God," said the Rev. Tom Parrish, pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. "I've sat at the bedside of many [dying] gay men. I deeply love them, but I deeply disagree with them."

The Rev. Bob Battle, pastor of Berean Church in the shadow of the Capitol, also said gay marriage runs counter to the Adam and Eve creation story in Genesis. A longtime politically conservative civil rights leader, he added that, "I don't think this has anything to do with civil rights."

A House committee is scheduled to hear the bill Monday at 12:30. Chief Senate sponsor Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said he expects the measure will get a vote by the full Senate, possibly as soon as next week.

"We should give this to the public to decide," Limmer said.

"This is the time for Minnesota to have this public dialogue."

Rachel.Stassen-Berger @startribune.com vonste@startribune.com • 612-673-7184

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