The fight for Minnesota marriage equality has entered a crucial stage: Supporters of legislation to remove the bar against same-sex marriage in the state held a press conference Wednesday to announce that a same-sex bill will be introduced Thursday. (Video above)
On hand at the press conference were co-authors and Minneapolis Democrats Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Karen Clark, and Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins. Not present was co-author Republican Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, who broke from the united ranks of GOP opposition to same-sex marriage to say he supports marriage equality earlier this week.
The legislation means that after years of contentious debates which have included inflammatory anti-gay rhetoric from opponents, an impressive 2012 election campaign that resulted in the defeat of a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage, and a burgeoning of hope on the part of GLBT activists who have been pushing for marriage equality, the fight for equality has finally reached the floor of the Legislature. It is an exciting moment for those who believe in marriage equality, but prospects for approval of a new law opening the door to same-sex marriage remain clouded — mostly because members of the DFL legislative majority remain divided over the issue.
Although the party platform supports same-sex marriage, and although DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has announced his support of the idea, many rural and conservative Democrats have withheld their support. In addition, the GOP minorities in each house have stood uniformly against same-sex marriage — until this week.
Republican Petersen’s decision to support same-sex marriage drew fire from conservatives, including one national group that threatened to spend $500,000 to defeat him during the next election. Petersen dismissed the opposition, saying he would do what he thinks “is right.”
Petersen’s move is an indication of how fast the politics of same-sex marriage are changing. Still, it is unknown whether enough Democrats and a few Republicans will vote for the legislation to win approval. If they do, Gov. Dayton has said he will sign the bill into law.
Dayton stood up for marriage equality during his 2013 State of the State address on Feb. 6:
“I believe that every Minnesotan should have the freedom to marry legally the person she or he loves, whether of the same or other sex,” Dayton said. “I want Minnesota to be a state which affirms that freedom for one means freedom for everyone, and where no one is told it is illegal to marry the person you love.”
The UpTake’s Jacob Wheeler prepared the following report:
The question is whether the DFL-controlled Legislature has the political will to make good on the momentum garnered by last November’s defeat of an anti-gay marriage ballot measure sponsored by Republicans.
“I think there’s a better than even chance of getting that bill passed this year,” believes Scott Dibble, a gay state senator who will be the chief sponsor of the Senate legislation.
Minnesotans United for All Families, which rallied to defeat the amendment last November, has its sights set on pressuring lawmakers to legalize same-sex marriage this session. The campaign’s “coming out” was a huge Valentine’s Day rally on Feb. 14 at the State Capitol, which included more than 1,000 activists and a hundred faith leaders.
“We’re very quickly coming to full speed on ‘MN United 2.0′,” said campaign director Richard Carlbom. “Faith leaders will call attention to the fact that this is an issue of fundamental freedom and one of religious freedom. The government shouldn’t be in the business of telling any church who can and cannot get married.”
The push to win lawmaker support for same-sex marriage differs in tone and strategy from the effort to win over citizens during last year’s amendment fight, but Democratic lawmakers, such as Dibble, say the overall issue hasn’t changed, and the time is now to pass marriage equality.
“We’ve been having this discussion about who is ‘family’ in Minnesota, what love and marriage mean, and who should have access to basic freedoms and opportunities in our state, for over 10 years,” said Dibble. “Sure, let’s continue the conversation. But now the DFL has to stand up and take some steps on the things it says it believes in.”
Some Democratic lawmakers, like Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul — a supporter of gay marriage rights — are urging caution before the party pushes for marriage equality. They worry that last Fall’s triumph at the polls was a defeat for Republican tactics on the issue more than a popular endorsement for marriage equality.
“(The defeat of the constitutional amendment) started a conversation that, I think, needs to continue in Minnesota, about whether the freedom to marry applies to same-sex couples,” said Murphy. “That needs to push out ahead of us in the legislature. I want to make sure that if we act on this question this session, that it’s sustainable and durable going forward, with the support of the people.”
Minnesotans voted down the amendment that would have closed discussion and constitutionally banned gay marriage. But can marriage-equality proponents automatically assume that translates into support for legalizing same-sex marriage?
“I think the conversation was really about, ‘let’s not foreclose the conversation’,” answered Murphy. “That conversation is somewhat different than saying, ‘I’m ready now to support this for everybody in Minnesota’.”
The DFL controls the House, the Senate and the Governor’s mansion, and supports marriage equality in its platform. Whether it will carry that into the Legislature remains to be seen. Carlbom says activists are counting on votes from some DFLers who represent conservative districts where the marriage amendment won a majority of votes.
“Nobody’s declaring victory,” said Carlbom. “We don’t have the votes we need yet. We need to go out and earn the support for the freedom to marry. (But) we do have commitments from folks who represent districts where the amendment did pass, yet they understand that this is an issue of freedom.”
Might more Republicans join the GOP’s Petersen and vote for marriage equality this time?
“We’re working very hard to understand which Republicans we should reach out to,” said Carlbom. “The Republican party has always been about individual liberty, and if they want to uphold that core principle of their party, then they should want to work with us.”
For Scott Dibble and his husband, Richard (whom he married in California), the upcoming vote isn’t just political, it’s personal.
“Republican colleagues — friends of mine — uphold Richard’s and my relationship as an ideal to which they aspire, because we have such a wonderful marriage, and that’s obvious to everyone who knows us,” Dibble says. “So for friends of mine to say that to me, and then vote the way they did, is hard for me to reconcile.”
Dibble says several of those Republican colleagues, who voted to put the marriage restriction amendment on the ballot, came to him after the measure failed, to seek forgiveness and absolution. He hopes some of them might vote for marriage equality this session.
National trends seem to be tipping toward same-sex marriage rights. President Barack Obama, in his second inaugural address, mentioned the gay-rights milestone of Stonewall in the same sentence with other important Civil Rights events, such as Selma and Seneca Falls. And just this week, 75 prominent national Republicans signed a brief supporting same-sex marriage that is being submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This is where the electorate is going,” said Carlbom. A true Minnesotan, Carlbom brought up an old saying of hockey mega-star Wayne Gretzky: “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it is,” Carlbom recited. In other words, Carlbom was suggesting that the politics of same-sex marriage, like the puck, is a moving target. “In 2014,” he predicted, “a majority of Minnesotans will support the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.”
So why are some in the DFL afraid that pushing social legislation could hurt them in the next election, just as it doomed Republicans last November?
“When the Republicans put this amendment on the ballot, that’s the only thing they did: it was their crowning achievement, on the way toward shutting down state government because of their overreach on fiscal and tax issues,” said Dibble, who disagrees with the analogy. “They did it in the absence of doing things that they otherwise should have been tending to, like balancing the state’s budget and working with the Governor to make sure our tax system is fair.”
Dibble believes that if the DFL legalizes gay marriage this session, the move would accompany, but not overshadow, progressive fiscal policies that affect Minnesotans every day. And that is how the party will be judged when voters next go to the polls in 2014
“I think the perceived political risk (of passing marriage equality) is overblown and overstated,” says Dibble.
Fellow DFL State Senator John Marty agrees. “Some people are trying to analyze ‘what are the politics if we do this or don’t do this?’ Marty said. Instesd, he says, Democrats should “figure out what’s right to do, and then deal with the political consequences. In this case I think the political consequences would be a disaster if we don’t do what’s right.”
Regardless of when lawmakers vote on marriage equality, DFLers agree that the public needs to continue applying pressure on their representatives and making their voices heard at the Capitol.
“Instead of only thinking about a campaign that pushes legislators toward a vote, first it’s important to engage Minnesotans once again and bring that conversation from outside the Capitol inside the Capitol,” said Rep. Murphy.
“I can introduce the bill, I can run it through the committee process,” echoed Sen. Dibble. “But we’re not going to be successful until you engage a constituency to mobilize around this idea.”
Whether the push comes from inside the Capitol or outside, Minnesotans United for all Families wants to close the deal.
“There’s a difference between being strategic and being patient,” said Carlbom. “Minnesotans United is looking to be strategic. We are not patient; we want this done.”
Opponents of same-sex marriage in Minnesota hold a news conference