The federal appeals court ruling that a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage in California is unconstitutional is likely to have more symbolic than practical effect in Minnesota, scholars and activists say.
The California case is widely expected to go to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the appeal could take a year or more, making a final ruling unlikely before Minnesotans vote in November on a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which is already illegal in the state.
While both sides in the Minnesota debate are likely to use the California decision for fundraising, the case has no direct effect, said Edward Schiappa, a professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Communications Studies.
"The decision is not so much about gay marriage as it is about Prop 8 as a citizen initiative," Schiappa said. "The Supreme Court decision will not be about gay marriage, per se, but solely about whether it is constitutional in California to target a group to take away a right that they had."
But Minnesota activists on both sides said that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision sends a strong signal about the tenor of the fight ahead.
"It lends support to very strong arguments that marriage is a fundamental right," said DFL state Sen. Scott Dibble, who opposes the Minnesota referendum. "It says that separating and creating a second class of citizens -- that governmental intrusion into who you can love and who you can marry -- is wrong."
"This is something that's too serious not to fight for," said Gary Borgendale, a Twin Cities radio ministry director who opposes same-sex unions. "There are too many things moving in that direction for this not to end up in court."
A Hennepin County lawsuit seeking to legalize gay marriage is already headed for trial. But although the state Court of Appeals has shown interest in the case, some gay-marriage sympathizers hold little hope for action by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
"In Minnesota, that question was decided by the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1971," said Teresa Collett, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas who opposes same-sex marriage. "For our purposes, the federal law has been decided until the U.S. Supreme Court speaks."
Collett said, "All the proposed amendment does in our state, unlike California, is take present law and place it in the [state] Constitution so that the people have to be asked before it's changed."
The same debate has spread across the nation. While voters in Minnesota and North Carolina decide this year whether to join 30 other states with constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, lawmakers in Maryland, New Jersey and Washington are considering bills to open marriage to gays.
"For us, it affirms what Minnesotans already know, that there's no reason for government to deny the basic freedom to marry for committed couples of any kind," said Jake Loesch of Minnesotans United for All Families. "... It just goes to show that the conversation about this issue is important, and it's going to continue over the next 10 months."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.