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Debate over gay marriage ban begins at Capitol
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A line of people some 60 yards long formed before the start of Tuesday's House committee hearing on a proposed ban on same-sex marriages in Minnesota. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
A proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Minnesota receives its first hearing Tuesday afternoon in the Minnesota House. Supporters of the proposal say the amendment is necessary to ensure that the courts will not recognize the marriage of same sex couples. Opponents say the amendment is discriminatory and has no place in Minnesota's Constitution.

St. Paul, Minn. — The committee hearing is getting plenty of attention from both social conservatives who support the ban and gay rights supporters who say the proposal isn't necessary. A line of people 60 yards long stood outside the hearing room a half an hour before the hearing was scheduled to start.

Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, is the author of the proposed constitutional amendment. She says she's taking the action because she doesn't want the Minnesota courts to define marriage. The Minnesota Legislature passed the Defense of Marriage Act banning gay marriage in 1997, but Holberg worries a court could consider the law unconstitutional.

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Image Tom Prichard

"A federal constitutional amendment is very hard to pass and generally takes several years. The likelihood of a court challenge in Minnesota is soon," Holberg says, "as soon as Massachusetts sets up their marriage certificate, or if there's a ruling in California or somewhere else that says those marriage certificates are valid."

Holberg says her proposal would allow voters in the November election to decide whether marriage should only refer to the union of a man and a woman. The proposed amendment would also forbid domestic partnerships or civil unions, but she says it would allow the Legislature to provide benefits to gay couples.

The proposal needs the approval of both the House and Senate, but doesn't require the governor's signature to get on the ballot. If a majority of those voting in the general election vote in favor of the amendment, the proposal would be included in the Minnesota Constitution.

That worries Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, who is the only openly gay member of the Minnesota House. Clark says the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community considers the proposal a civil rights issue.

"It hurts GLBT families, who are an important part of our community here in Minnesota," says Clark. "It's a very dangerous bill, and would enshrine bigotry in the Minnesota Constitution -- and there's no way that should happen."

It's a very dangerous bill, and would enshrine bigotry in the Minnesota Constitution -- and there's no way that should happen.
- State Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis

Clark puts her faith in the courts, which she says have made historical decisions that were considered controversial at the time. She cites the integration of schools and interracial marriage as two examples. Clark also says marriage would allow gay couples to have access to their partner's health and retiree benefits.

Groups that support and oppose the amendment have been lobbying at the grass roots level. Officials with the gay rights organization, OutFront Minnesota, say they've contacted their 2,000 members.

Tom Prichard, with the Minnesota Family Council, says his organization has sent out 7,000 to 8,000 e-mails on the issue. Prichard says it's one of the most important issues of the legislative session.

"I really see this issue as one which shouldn't necessarily be in the Constitution. The Constitution is the forming of our government. But I think that marriage is so fundamental, so essential to the well being of our society, that I think it warrants a constitutional amendment in these circumstances," says Prichard.

Prichard and other supporters of the amendment say they're concerned there could be legal challenges in Minnesota from gay couples who get married in other states. But Charlie Rounds, who owns a bar and restaurant and travel agency that cater to the gay community, says Minnesota lawmakers should be concerned about Minnesota issues.

"Stop focusing on what's going on in other states. We're talking about the Constitution of the state of Minnesota and that is their responsibility. If we're talking about what's going on in other states, they shouldn't be," says Rounds.

While the bill has received significant support from Republican House leadership, it hasn't yet received a hearing in the DFL-controlled Senate. The Senate author says she intends to introduce the Senate companion later this week.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson says the bill will receive a committee hearing, but says Senate DFLers are hesitant to change the Constitution on social issues.

"People are quite reluctant and reserved to change the Constitution -- a document that's been with us 150-plus years," says Johnson. "It should be reserved for huge, huge structural kinds of changes in Minnesota."

Johnson says he's also concerned that the proposal is an attempt to attract conservative voters to the polls in the November election.

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