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.”

State Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, said Wednesday that homosexuality is “a choice” and later called it a “sexual addiction” that did not warrant the same rights granted heterosexual couples.

“The concept you are born that way is an unscientific lie,” Gruenhagen said.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said he wants to see same-sex marriage legalized in Minnesota, but he cautioned the vote would not come early in the legislative session.

Budget first, then a vote

“We need to get our budget work completed before we take that up,” said Thissen, sitting in front of a sign signed by hundreds of people thanking him for his opposition to the constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex unions. “But there’s still work that needs to be done to build the support around it, too.”

Thissen said he will not bring up the measure for a floor vote until he is certain of its passage.

Ken Martin, chair of the state DFL Party, is trying to help with that. He said he understands the issue can be very divisive and could jeopardize re-election chances for some.

“We will do everything we can in our power to make sure those legislators are returned to office next year,” Martin said. “We will commit significant resources to protect all of our incumbents, including those that take tough votes this legislative session.”

Advocates also have made it clear that they need Republican support.

Recently, Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, broke ranks to say he would support the measure — the first GOP member to do so. On Wednesday, former Republican State Auditor Pat Anderson said she supported Petersen and same-sex marriage.

“As a strong proponent of limited government, conservative principles and individual liberty, I am proud to add my name as co-author of legislation to secure the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in Minnesota,” Petersen said in a statement.

If same-sex marriage becomes law, weddings could commence as early as August.