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Legislature to consider definition of marriage
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Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, says a constitutional amendment is needed to ban gay marriage after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled last year that gays should have the right to marry in that state. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
The debate over gay marriage got a headstart in a House committee on Wednesday. Minnesota already has a law that forbids gay marriage, but some worry that legal challenges could render those laws unconstitutional. They argue that an amendment to the state constitution is necessary to ensure the ban stays in place. Opponents say it's unnecessary and is discriminatory to members of the gay community.

St. Paul, Minn. — The debate comes down to whether the Legislature thinks its laws banning gay marriage are strong enough. Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, is the main supporter in the House of amending the constitution to ban gay marriage. She says she's working on finishing her proposal and hopes to present it by the end of February.

She drafting the proposal because of a court case half a country away. The Massachusetts Supreme Court issued a ruling last year that would permit gays to marry. Holberg says she's concerned that similar court challenges could change Minnesota's Defense of Marriage Act. Holberg says a constitutional amendment would prevent the courts from interfering with the law.

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Image Ann DeGroot

"The current Defense of Marriage Act in the state of Minnesota was overwhelmingly passed by the legislators and an opportunity for the public to comment on this important public policy issue should be the way to go considering what we've seen in the courts," she said.

A constitutional amendment needs the support of both the Minnesota House and Senate to get placed on the November general election ballot. If a majority of the voters who vote in that election support the proposal, the amendment would become part of the state constitution.

Holberg, who chairs the House Civil Law Committee, held a hearing to discuss the history of marriage and opinions on the issue. St. Thomas law professor Charles Reid told the committee that legal challenges are causing the American courts and society to change the definition of marriage. Reid says he's concerned that the historical concept of marriage could be diluted over time.

"If we take a reductionist approach to the definition of marriage or if virtually any collaborative enterprise could be fit within the definition of marriage, we will, I believe, at least at the level of marital theory, effectively abolish marriage as a distinctive institution," according to Reid.

"Marriage in this county as in the world is in a process of evolution and has always been," said Ann DeGroot, the executive director of the gay rights organization, OutFront Minnesota. She says the U.S. once had laws forbidding marriages by slaves, divorcees and mixed race couples. She says just as opinions on those issues changed over time so too could views on gay marriage.

DeGroot says gay couples in long-term relationships should have the same rights as married heterosexual couples. She says commtted gay couples deserve the same benefits, the ability to make medical decisions if a partner is sick and access to a partner's Social Security or retirement benefits.

"These people have model relationships that many benefit from looking at. I think when you starting talking about those folks as less than other people, Britney Spears for example, we denigrate some people in our community and policy should never seek to denigrate anyone," she said.

DeGroot and several DFL lawmakers warn that changes in the state constitution now would make it very difficult to repeal a ban even if public opinion changes. Several members of the committee voiced support of the amendment and say it's important to allow the voters to make a decision on it.

Others, like Rep. Lynn Wardlow, R-Eagan, say he's hearing support from his constituents for the amendment but is still struggling with its impact.

"If it's an extremely important issue like this, what I'm struggling with is should we put it before the people because it's so important or not. And that's the debate within myself," he said.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says it's likely that the House will pass the bill. It may be more difficult in the DFL-controlled Senate.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson says his caucus will consider every constitutional amendment very carefully.

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