Minn. voters will decide on gay marriage ban

8:59 AM, May 23, 2011   |    comments
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  • Troopers and protests line side door to House chamber
  • Amendment protester with baby

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Minnesota voters next year will decide whether to place a ban on gay marriage in the state's constitution.

The Minnesota House voted late Saturday night to put the question on the 2012 ballot.  The House was the final step needed for the referendum, because proposed constitutional amendments bypass the governor's desk.

The vote came after an emotional six-hour debate, capping a tumultuous month of hearings and protests at the State Capitol. The amendment, if approved by voters, would define marriage as only between one man and one woman. 

That definition already exists in state statute, but backers of the amendment say they fear the courts or a future legislature will overturn it. They cite the fact that 31 other states now have such a ban in their constitutions.

Those who fought the amendment in the legislature are vowing to step up efforts to defeat it at the polls. Within an hour of the vote at the Capitol, opponents launched an umbrella organization, Minnesotans United for All Families.

The final 70-to-62 tally for the most part followed party lines, but some lawmakers did part with their party's position.  Four Republicans, including John Kriesel of Cottage Grove, Tim Kelly of Red Wing, Steve Smith of Mound and Rich Murray of Albert Lea voted against the bill.

Two DFL members, Denise Dittrich of Champlin and Lyle Koenen of Clara City voted for putting the ban on the ballot.  Democrats Bobby Joe Champion of Minneapolis and David Dill of Crane Lake had been excused from the session due to previous commitments away from the Capitol.

Hundreds of protesters chanted and sang just outside the main doors of the House chamber throughout out the debate. Rep. Kriesel, who lost his legs fighting in Iraq, referred to the demonstrators during his floor speech.

"This amendment is not what I fought for over there, not this amendment," Kriesel told his colleagues, before gesturing to the doors.

"Those people out there, that's what I fought for and I'm proud of it."

At one point Kriesel held up a photograph of Corporal Andrew Wilfahrt, a Rosemount soldier killed in Afghanistan in February.

"He was gay. He was gay. How can I tell his family that Corporal Wilfahrt was good enough to fight and die for his country, but he's not good enough to marry someone he loves. I can't do that!"

Rep. John Ward, D - Brainerd, gave a very moving and personal account of being bullied on the school playground and passed over for summer jobs because he was born with a deformed right arm.

"I felt angry, I felt frustrated, but what I remember most of all, I decided I would never, ever allow more discrimination."

The chief author of the marriage bill, Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R - St. Cloud, would not allow himself to be pulled into a debate about discrimination or civil rights. Instead he stuck to what has become the Republican strategy during all the hearings; he focused on the public vote.

"This is not about hatred. It is not about discrimination or intolerance," Gottwalt said, "This bill simply says the people get to decide whether they want this in the Constitution. What are we afraid of, why are we afraid of letting the people vote?"

Rep. Tina Liebling, D - Rochester, called it Un-american to put the civil rights of the gay minority up to a vote of the straight majority.  She said she dreaded the divisive public debate that awaits Minnesota in the next year and a half.

"Are we supposed to decide which families are more worthy? Is my family more worthy than yours?"

But Jason Adkins, a spokesman for the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which represents the political views of Catholic bishops, said he doesn't expect the campaign to get ugly.

"Minnesotans have been given the opportunity to have an important conversation about the future of marriage," Adkins said.

When asked why the bishops are so adamant about this issue, Adkins said they fear that a law legalizing gay marriage would replace the words "mother" and "father" with gender neutral terms.  He also predicted that public schools would be required to teach about nontraditional families, if gay marriage were to become legal in Minnesota. 

The debate had been scheduled originally for Friday, but Republican leaders in the House chose to delay it after a controversial opening prayer from a pastor known for his anti-gay comments.  Bradlee Dean used his stint as guest chaplain for the day to question President Obama's Christian faith.

(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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