Minnesota governor signs marriage law

For the third time in two weeks, a state has been moved into the “marriage equality” column. Democratic Governor Mark Dayton signed legislation Tuesday (May 14) that enables same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses starting August 1. He did so one day after the state senate voted 37 to 30 to approve the measure.

“Last year, there were concerns that marriage equality would be banned here forever,” said Dayton, referring to a November 2012 ballot measure which sought to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. But voters rejected that measure.

“What a difference a year and an election can make in our state,” said Dayton.

The signing ceremony, with openly gay State Rep. Karen Clark and openly gay State Senator Scott Dibble at the governor’s side, marked Minnesota as the twelfth state plus the District of Columbia to provide for marriage equality. Six of those states have approved marriage equality in just the past six months, and three just this month.

On May 2, it was Rhode Island. On May 7, it was Delaware.

Meanwhile, time is running out for approval of a marriage equality bill in Illinois this year. The Illinois Senate passed the bill in February, but the House adjourns May 31 and the Chicago Sun-Times says supporters still need three to five votes. Supporters say they believe they will get those votes and that the House may take up the vote Wednesday or Thursday this week. Democratic Governor Pat Quinn has been making a concerted push for votes.

For now, Minnesota’s approval means that 18 percent of the U.S. population now lives in a state which provides marriage equality.

Senator Dibble, a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party from Minneapolis introduced the bill to the floor. He wrote a letter to his senate colleagues in February to acknowledge that he is gay and married his male partner in California in 2008 when same-sex couples could obtain marriage licenses there.

Many supporters of the Minnesota bill talked about gay family members, friends, and colleagues, and about civil rights laws generally.

Senator Terri Bonoff of Minnelonka told colleagues that her brother acknowledged being gay several years ago, and that her closest friend was a gay man who succumbed to AIDS some years ago. She also spoke about gay neighbors and a gay intern in her office.

Senator Jeff Hayden (D-Minneapolis), an African American, said his children urged him to vote yes. He said they did so because they have known same-sex couples. But Hayden also referenced the Loving v. Virginia case that established the right of interracial couples to marry, noting that that decision enabled him to marry his wife, who is white.

In one of the more emotional speeches of the debate, Senator Roger Reinert, his voice choking back tears, noted that his parents –who were watching from the gallery— had taught him to be tolerant. Reinert, a 43-year-old Democrat from Duluth, noted that he is single now but hopes to find someone who will love him. He said he would vote for the bill.

During debate, a large crowd of supporters rallied in the state capitol rotunda, singing songs and chanting. A small number of opponents, most of whom appeared elderly, held signs with female-male icons and the words “Defend Marriage” and stood quietly.

Opposition during the debate in Minnesota Senate and House sounded often like opposition last week in Delaware. There were several opponents who talked about the “unintended consequences” of allowing marriage for same-sex couples, about the possibility that it would lead to teaching young children in public school about homosexuality, and about the likely infringement on religious beliefs.

Republican Senator Warren Limmer of Maple Grove led the discussion about concerns over the bill’s impact on religious freedom. Limmer said he believes the bill “tries to protect” religious practitioners but “doesn’t go far enough.”

Another Republican, Senator Paul Gazelka of Nisswa, said people “trying to please their god,” are being forced to “violate core principles.” He offered an amendment to exempt from the law not just religious entities but also “entities in connection with religious entities” and their volunteers and employees, as well as private individuals who believe marriage is between a man and a woman only.

Interestingly, it was a straight Republican senator who rose to oppose Limmer and Gazelka and their amendment, saying no member of the senate had spent more time examining the threats to religious liberty than himself. Senator Branden Petersen of Andover said their concerns about the potential for infringement on religious liberties were simply “not true.”

Dibble, too, spoke against the proposed amendment to expand the religious exemption broadly, calling it “breathtaking” and saying it would not only gut the marriage equality bill but also the state’s civil rights law, which prohibits discrimination based on all categories, including race. Others agreed.

“How could we possibly think about entertaining an amendment that contains the harshest religious discriminatory language?” asked Senator Patricia Torres Ray, a DFL member from Minneapolis. She said the Limmer-Gazelka amendment would exempt hospitals, nurses, doctors, pharmacy workers, and “any private person” from serving a gay person, claiming a religious belief to justify their discrimination.

The Senate rejected the amendment 26 to 41.

Senator Torrey Westrom, a Republican from Elbow Lake, offered an amendment seeking to continue using the terms “mother” and “father” in relation to male-female marriages in state law. He said the marriage equality bill was using gender-neutral terms for same-sex couples but doesn’t specify that male-female couples could continue using gender specific terms.

Dibbles spoke against that amendment, too, saying it was “completely and totally unnecessarily” because the bill does not prohibit the use of gender-specific terms in the case of male-female couples.

The Senate rejected the second amendment by a vote of 31 to 36.

Later in the discussion, Westrom spoke against the overall bill, saying that “just 16 years ago,” the state had defined marriage as being only between one man and one woman.

“I think there are a lot of unintended consequences,” he said.

“If marriage is about who you love, where will that stop?” asked Westrom.

The bill passed the House floor a week earlier after being introduced by Rep. Clark, Clark who told other representatives of her parents support for her relationship and reminding the House that gay people pay taxes and vote like everyone else. Clark could was on the floor of the senate Monday when the bill passed the senate.

Rep. Tim Faust (DFL) said he would have voted no on the bill but for the many conversations he had with same-sex couples, many of who quoted from the bible to stand in favor of marriage equality.

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