Archived Story

Editorial: Civil unions idea is a cop-out

Published 9:27am Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Before the current legislative session began — and not long after the defeat of a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage — we suggested that a cooling-off period was in order.

We knew that proponents of same-sex marriage, emboldened by their first-in-the-nation victory in 2012, eventually would carry their fight to the Legislature, but we hoped they would hold off for at least one year. We argued that education, the budget and tax reform needed to be the priorities in 2013, not social issues. With the U.S. Supreme Court about to weigh in on two cases directly related to same-sex marriage, this seemed like a good time to hit the pause button in Minnesota while waiting to see how things played out in nation’s highest court.

But the DFL-controlled Legislature had other ideas. Bills that would legalize same-sex marriage await floor debate and votes in both the House and Senate, and Gov. Mark Dayton has said he will sign such a bill if it reaches his desk.

Until very recently, the fate of this legislation seemed likely to hinge on DFL legislators from rural Minnesota, where the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage enjoyed a higher level of support than it did in the state’s major cities. But now, a new wrinkle has been added to the discussion.

Rep. Kim Norton, a DFLer from Rochester, this week announced she supports a GOP-led proposal that would require Minnesota to recognize civil unions for same-sex couples but not same-sex marriage. Rep. Tim Kelly, a Republican from Red Wing, is spearheading this effort, which Norton says might help find some middle ground in a very complex issue. “The community is very split on this issue, and I am just trying very hard to listen and to do the right thing,” she said.

Norton is in a tough spot. We consider her to be one of the state’s more moderate DFLers, and from the beginning, she’s made it clear she didn’t want this fight in 2013. (She has more than enough to do, as she’s leading the effort to steer the Destination Medical Center initiative through the House.)

Furthermore, Norton represents a district that has a strong conservative history, so we have no doubt her constituents are deeply divided on the topic of same-sex marriage. Kelly’s proposal offers Norton and other legislators a chance to split the difference.

They should decline that opportunity.

Kelly has described his bill as a fail-safe, a “fallback plan” in the event that the same-sex marriage proposal is defeated. He might have intended it that way, but we’re far from alone in seeing it as a way of muddying the waters regarding same-sex marriage, of introducing confusion into a complex and emotionally charged issue. A cynic would say Kelly is deliberately trying to lure away some crucial DFL votes from the same-sex marriage proposal, offering instead a chance to gain political cover by kicking the can down the road.

The U.S. Supreme Court might very well find a way to avoid issuing a definitive ruling on the subject of same-sex marriage, but now that the issue has gotten this far in Minnesota, we want our legislators to stand up and be counted, one way or another. If they decide that marriage in Minnesota should be between a man and a woman, then so be it, but they shouldn’t then be able to hold out the option of separate-but-not-equal civil unions.

It’s not as if Minnesota’s GLBT community is clamoring for this option. Given the choice between civil unions or nothing (and continued unity in the pursuit of full marriage rights), there’s hardly a shred of support for civil unions.

So have the final debates on the floors of the House and Senate. Talk about civil rights. Discuss the effect of same-sex marriage on children. Disagree as to whether the term “marriage” has religious connotations. Have town-hall meetings and conduct telephone surveys to gauge constituents’ views.

But before the session ends, we want every legislator to say “Yea” or “Nay” on same-sex marriage.

— Rochester Post-Bulletin, April 6