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Massachusetts ruling prompts Minnesota lawmakers to clarify marriage definition
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Sen. Michele Bachman speaks at a news conference announcing her intention to file legislation clarifying that marriage is a civil contract between a man and woman. Jeremy and Jada Stout of Stillwater, married 3 years, look on. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Two Republican state legislators say they will push a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Their announcement comes two days after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that gay couples have the right to marry under that state's constitution. The Minnesota legislators say defining marriage in the state constitution would ensure that voters, not judges, decide the issue.

St. Paul, Minn. — Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater, calls the Massachusetts decision an act of "unprecedented judicial activism." In a 4-to-3 decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to rewrite marriage laws for the benefit of gay couples. Minnesota law bans gay marriage, but Bachmann fears that same-sex couples will get married in Massachusetts, return to Minnesota and challenge the law here.

"So in order to secure the definition of marriage in Minnesota, we are seeking to have the definition placed within the Constitution and therefore keep it beyond the reach of a judicial decision," she said.

Bachmann and Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, say they'll try to get a constitutional amendment on the 2004 ballot that would define marriage as a civil contract between a man and a woman.

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Image Unnecessary, Rest says

The executive director of the gay rights advocacy group Outfront Minnesota says the issue doesn't merit changing the constitution. Ann DeGroot says the lawmakers' effort is mean-spirited.

"To use the constitution to really try to create a situation in which discrimination is a part of the fabric or the legal code of our state in that way is really very extreme," she said.

DeGroot agrees with Bachmann that some gay couples will try to challenge Minnesota law. But she says a legal challenge will be tough. The Legislature passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1997. It bans gay marriage, and also says same-sex marriages from other states are not recognized in Minnesota.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, voted for the act. She says she thought it reflected the common understanding of marriage in Minnesota. But she says she doesn't support putting that language in the state constitution.

"It's unnecessary, it's redundant, it's duplicative, and we want to be concentrating on an agenda that has a vision for Minnesota," she said.

Gov. Pawlenty also voted for the Defense of Marriage Act as a legislator. He says he's opposed to gay marriage, and would support amending the constitution to define marriage as an institution between a man and a woman.

"I'm told that the Defense of Marriage Act in Minnesota probably would repel the legal effect of another state's court decisions or statutes legalizing gay marriage, but since that's not a for sure, and also because statutes can be changed by a simple majority of the Legislature, this may well be an issue that we want to consider for a constitutional amendment," he said.

The governor's signature isn't required to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot; it must simply pass the House and Senate. But opponents of the measure predict a tough fight, particularly if Pawlenty is vocal about his support for an amendment.

Outfront Minnesota's Ann DeGroot says gay marriage will spark an emotional debate in an election year. She says she hopes the public will oppose a constitutional amendment.

"I travel in Minnesota, I talk to a lot of people and I think one of the things I can tell you is that most of the Minnesotans that I know do not like extreme measures, they do not like to enact extreme laws that harm people," Degroot said.

The two lawmakers pushing the amendment say they're optimistic the Legislature will support their measure.

Rep. Holberg says the Defense of Marriage Act had overwhelming support six years ago.

"Out of the legislators that are still here from 1997, only 12 current House members opposed it, and only 10 current senators opposed it in various votes on the House and Senate floor. So I'm very excited about this opportunity to put this issue before the people of the state of Minnesota," she said.

Four states have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. They are Alaska, Hawaii, Nebraska and Nevada.

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