Gay marriage fight begins in Minnesota Legislature

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2013 - 6:01 AM

Effort to legalize same-sex marriages faces questions, even from DFLers.

 

Minnesota legislators who are determined to legalize same-sex marriage opened up the newest battleground over the issue Wednesday.

“This is a day that Minnesotans should be very proud of,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, a Minneapolis DFLer who is a chief sponsor of a bill introduced Wednesday that would legalize same-sex marriage. “Our challenge in coming weeks is that we really have this discussion with renewed energy, about why marriage matters, why family matters.”

With legislative supporters vowing to press hard on the issue, opponents say the other side is dangerously out of sync with Minnesotans’ values.

“It’s a huge mistake to believe the lie that the results of the November election was a mandate to legalize gay marriage,” said John Helmberger, chairman of Minnesota for Marriage, which is leading the opposition to the proposal. Minnesotans defeated an attempt to constitutionally ban same-sex unions, but many of the state’s less populated areas voted solidly in favor of the ban.

This new fight puts Minnesota squarely in the cross hairs of a swiftly changing national debate over the rights of gay Americans. Earlier this week, the National Organization for Marriage pledged $500,000 to defeat any Minnesota Republican legislator who votes to legalize same-sex marriage. But on Wednesday, in preparation for when the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments on same-sex marriage late next month, 200 of the largest corporations in the country publicly signaled their support for such unions. So have a number of nationally prominent Republicans.

After Minnesota’s November defeat of the GOP-led constitutional ban and the ouster of Republicans from legislative leadership, advocates now believe they have their best shot at overturning the state’s statutory ban. Minnesota would then join the nine states where same-sex marriage is legal.

A test for rural DFLers

But passage remains far from certain. Some newly elected rural DFLers are leery of tackling the controversial topic but find themselves caught between veteran colleagues and constituents back home who oppose gay marriage.

“I am elected to listen to my constituents, and what they are consistently telling me is that marriage is a union between one man and one woman,” said Rep. Mary Sawatzky, a first-term DFLer from Willmar.

Voters in Sawatzky’s hometown overwhelmingly voted in favor of the proposed constitutional amendment, though she said she voted against the measure.

“It’s a tough issue,” Sawatzky said. “But I need to listen to the constituents of my county.”

Freshman Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake, said the marriage issue is vexing. He said he campaigned on making the economy stronger in the western edge of Minnesota, not on social issues.

McNamar just mailed 3,000 surveys to voters back home that included a question about legalizing same-sex marriage.

In his home county of Grant, 63 percent of voters opted to uphold the legal ban.

“I am up in the air,” he said. “My vote is based on the constituents in my district. Once I get the results of that survey, that’s how I will vote on whether to equalize marriage. It’s not my vote, it’s our vote.”

Opponents say legalizing same sex-marriage would be a blow to society and the traditional family unit. They plan to remind rural legislators where voters opposed same-sex marriage in November to honor the will of their constituents or face the electorate’s wrath in two years.

“Are you going to be voting against the wishes of your public?” asked Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chief sponsor of the marriage amendment rejected by voters. “That’s the biggest question. This entire vote will depend on rural Democrats.”

  • related content

  • Rabbi Michael Latz, right, got a kiss from his daughter after speaking Wednesday at a news conference that introduced a bill to legalize same-sex marriages. Latz was there with husband Michael Simon, center, as one of the couples with children surrounding Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Karen Clark, sponsors of the bill.

  • GOP Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen said gay couples did not warrant the same rights granted heterosexual ones.

  • Speaking at the news conference introducing the bill, Dr. Paul Melchert got an unexpected car across the face from son Emmett. Behind them were husband James Zimmerman and the couple’s son Gabriel.

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