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Gay marriage ban stirs emotions inside, outside Capitol
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Prior to the attempt in the Senate to put the gay marriage bill to a vote, gay and lesbian groups rallied at the Capitol (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
The Minnesota Senate has beaten back an attempt to force a vote on a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. The legislation would allow voters to decide whether to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Supporters of the ban attempted to get around the committee process and bring the amendment directly to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote. The failed tactic came as thousands of gays, lesbians, and their supporters rallied on the Capitol grounds in opposition to the gay marriage ban.

St. Paul, Minn. — Last week, the House voted on bipartisan lines to put the proposed same-sex marriage ban on the 2006 ballot. That leaves the Senate as the final battleground for those seeking a voter-approved constitutional amendment.

Republican Michelle Bachmann of Stillwater has been the Senate's most vocal advocate for putting the issue to voters. Bachmann, who is an announced candidate for the 6th Congressional District, says the DFL leadership has blocked her plan from moving forward, but her attempt to speed the process by bringing her bill directly to the Senate floor was defeated on a vote of 36-to-30.

"It's not a political issue; it's a moral issue, it's a cultural issue, and it's also an issue of governance," Bachmann says. "Essentially it comes down to this: Will the people of Minnesota be able to decide the rules that they live under? Or will activist courts now decide the rules that we live under?"

Sen. Don Betzold, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Bachmann filed the bill late and only asked for a hearing last week - just as his committee was bumping up against legislative deadlines. He said he'd give the bill a hearing - but left open the possibility it could be next year instead of this session.

It should matter little, he said, since the earliest a vote could be held on the measure is in 2006.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, blasted Bachmann for trying to circumvent the committee process.

"In her pursuit of a congressional seat, she is willing to break every rule," Johnson said. "That's what this is about."

Minnesota law already bans same-sex marriages. But courts in other states have struck down similar laws, leaving some to argue that only a constitutional amendment can truly limit marriage to one man and one woman.

The proposed amendment also outlaws "legal equivalents" to marriage, which gay rights advocates interpret as an attack on possible civil unions or domestic partner benefits.

We're simply asking that they represent the will of their constituents and support the amendment and stop providing cover for the other senators.
- Chuck Darrell, Minnesota for Marriage

Thousands gathered on the Capitol grounds to speak against the measure. Ann DeGroot, the executive director of Outfront Minnesota, told the crowd that, despite their winning one round in the Senate vote, the issue wouldn't disappear.

"So we all have to keep together and keep working on this, talk to our legislators, our friends, our family members, and everybody. Let them know what this would mean to you and your life," she said.

John Martinson of Shoreview says both of his daughters are lesbians, and he says he traveled to the Capitol to persuade lawmakers that they deserve the same rights and privileges given to heterosexual couples. Martinson says gay and lesbian relationships pose no threat to his and his wife's marriage.

"Not at all," he says. "It's enhanced by my daughters. It's enhanced by being here. It's enhanced by seeing couples."

Martinson says his state representative -- DFLer Bev Scalze -- surprised him last week when, during the House debate, she voted for putting the same-sex marriage ban on the ballot next year. Martinson says he worked on Scalze's campaign last fall and felt disappointed and betrayed. He says the amendment itself has overtones of past civil rights debates.

"Because it's so unjust and lacks any kind of understanding of what people are all about and what humans are all about in terms of even what marriage is all about. It shows a lot of hatred," he says.

Martinson and his allies won't necessarily have the last word on the matter. Later this month, supporters of the amendment are planning a demonstration of their own, billed as the "Stand Together for Marriage Rally."

Chuck Darrell, who represents the group Minnesota for Marriage, says Democratic leaders in the Senate are using procedural tricks to bottle up the gay marriage amendment. Darrell says that's despite public opinion polls showing widespread support for limiting marriage to a man and a woman.

"We're simply asking that they represent the will of their constituents and support the amendment and stop providing cover for the other senators," Darrell says.

Minnesota for Marriage has begun a series of radio ads targeting 10 DFL senators, asking constituents to contact them and voice their support for the same-sex marriage ban.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.