Minn. House, Senate panels pass gay marriage bills

Published 7:28 am Wednesday, March 13, 2013

ST. PAUL — A mother’s voice tearfully trembled as she spoke of seeing her gay son marry one day. A child plainly asked Minnesota lawmakers: “Which parent do I not need, my mom or my dad?”

State lawmakers heard that dueling testimony Tuesday before giving an early victory to a measure that would legalize gay marriage in Minnesota, despite warnings from foes who argued it was being rushed through the Legislature without a full grasp of the consequences.

The Senate Judiciary Committee and House Civil Law Committees endorsed the bills Tuesday on party line votes, with all Democrats in favor and all Republicans opposed. It now heads to the floor, where a final vote is not expected until much later in the session. Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Karen Clark, both openly gay Democrats from Minneapolis, said they are confident their bills could pass in the full Senate and House.

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Backers were moving to capitalize on the November defeat of a ballot measure that would have written into the Minnesota Constitution that a traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman into the constitution. They also saw hope in a state government entirely in Democratic hands for the first time in two decades.

Several Republican lawmakers criticized Democrats for pushing a divisive bill while budget work remains to be done — something Democrats accused Republicans of in 2011 as they worked to pass the marriage amendment.

Rep. Mellissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, promised that the bill wouldn’t come up for a floor vote until after budget bills are passed. But it’s important the Legislature tackle the issue now, she said.

“This is about granting rights. We are taking up this issue at our peril,” said Hortman, who co-authored the bill.

The committee action followed hours of testimony from pastors, business executives, parents, children, gay couples and others.

Randi Reitan sat next to her husband of 40 years and their son Jacob, who came out as gay 15 years ago. She told the House panel Tuesday morning that the time for gay marriage had come.

“We want Jacob to have the joy of a wedding, the firm foundation a marriage brings to families and the societal support that comes with all marriage,” she said.

Jacob Reitan spoke of watching as his three siblings got married and hoping for the chance to do the same. “As a gay man I should have the same opportunity to marry as my three siblings,” he said. “My desire to love is no less valid and no less worthy of recognition by our state as theirs.”

But opponents of same-sex marriage were equally forceful in their defense of the current law, saying change would undermine society’s family structure.

Grace Evans, 11, said children learn different things from parents of different genders and that’s why “God made it that way.”

Evans said her mother “is my role model on how to be a girl and I love her very much. My dad is also very important to me because he protects me and helps me get the confidence to be a girl who is growing up to be a woman. He takes care of me in a way my mom cannot.”

Staring into the eyes of House lawmakers, Evans twice asked which she could do without. She got no answer.

The public comments had a familiar ring in a Capitol where the definition of marriage has been a source of friction for at least 10 years, reaching its peak two years ago when Republicans put the constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chairwoman of Minnesota-based resort chain Carlson Cos., spoke out against that amendment and helped gather more than $1 million in support for the campaign fighting it.

“Now, it’s time to finish what we started,” she told the Senate committee. Opponents disputed that the defeat of the marriage amendment is a referendum to enact gay marriage.

Several lawmakers including Rep. Mary Liz Holberg questioned whether the bill gives enough protection to people who may object to same-sex marriage. The bill stipulates that churches would not be required to perform same-sex marriages, but the Lakeville Republican asked about caterers, wedding photographers or florists who don’t want to provide their services to gay couples.

University of Minnesota Law Professor Dale Carpenter said current state law already prohibits businesses from discriminating against customers based on sexual orientation. The state recognizing same-sex marriages wouldn’t change that, he said.

Richard Painter, another university law professor who worked in former President George W. Bush’s administration, urged the Legislature to extend the right to marry to all Minnesotans.

“Republicans understand that some things are none of the government’s business, and one of them is who you marry,” Painter said.

Sen. Branden Petersen, of Anoka, is the only current Republican lawmaker so far who has publically supported the bill.

Before voting against the bill, Sen. Dan Hall said that marriage in itself doesn’t make anyone more or less valuable. He, like many other opponents of the bill, said the definition of marriage should be left up to God.

“Is it about romantic sexual relationship? Or is it about the benefits, the money?” the Burnsville Republican asked. “What is it that you really want?”

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said he would sign the bill if the Legislature sends it to him. Same-sex weddings could begin in August. Gay marriage is legal in nine U.S. states and under consideration in others.