Lawmakers back stronger same-sex marriage ban

The proposal would write the current prohibition into the state constitution.

Two Minnesota legislators proposed an amendment to the state constitution Wednesday that would ban gay marriage.

Although Republican leaders are confident the measure will pass, gay rights groups question its potential for success.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said he expects the House to pass the amendment.

“This issue will be dealt with in a forthright manner,” he said.

But B. David Galt, director of the University Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Programs Office, said the amendment’s future is uncertain.

“It’s very premature,” Galt said. “Two legislators said they should consider this; (other legislators) have not said they are going to follow through with it.”

The proposed amendment is in response to a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling Tuesday that gave same-sex couples the right to marry. The legislators proposing the amendment said the ruling went beyond the court’s power.

“The people make the laws through the elected representatives, not through the judges,” said state Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater, who proposed the amendment with state Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville.

In Minnesota, the 1997 Defense of Marriage Act states that marriage can only be lawful between members of the opposite sex. The act also says Minnesota does not have to recognize marriages conducted in other states.

But Bachmann said while a statute can be changed, judges would not be able to alter the state constitution.

The Minnesota Family Council – a nonprofit group that lobbies for conservative values – stands behind the amendment.

“We’re very supportive of (the amendment),” said Tom Prichard, Minnesota Family Council president. “We need to rein in the courts. It’s too fundamental an issue to leave it to the possibility of the court redefining it.”

Unnecessary move?

State Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, said in light of the 1997 Defense of Marriage Act, the amendment is unnecessary.

“It isn’t necessary to put laws already on the books into the constitution,” Rest said.

Ann DeGroot, executive director of OutFront Minnesota – a lobbyist group for GLBT rights – said the issue is a way for politicians to gain support from conservative groups that oppose gay marriage.

“It is an extreme measure -outrageous and redundant,” she said. “It is wrong to use our constitution this way.”

But others from her group said the issue goes beyond politicking to discrimination.

“What they’re proposing is enshrining discrimination in our state’s fundamental document,” said Monica Meyer, public policy director for OutFront Minnesota. “Our elected leaders should be representing the basic rights of all of our people.”

Galt said it is not the government’s place to decide who can and cannot be married.

“To deny two people who love each other the ability to formalize their love is not right,” Galt said.

Currently, licenses for and recognition of same-sex marriages are banned in Minnesota. Domestic partner benefits for state employees’ same-sex-partners are also not guaranteed.

Despite this, Meyer said, more than 130 private state companies offer domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples.

Meyer also said same-sex couples can register for domestic partnership with the city of Minneapolis. This grants gay couples certain rights granted to heterosexual couples, such as seeing their partners in the hospital.

Meyer said GLBT organizations are patient when it comes to civil rights but are always working toward equality.

“We continuously work to make it safe for people to come out Ö and then to have equality when they do come out,” Meyer said.

Future action

Galt said in order for gay rights to advance in Minnesota, existing laws must be challenged.

“They’d have to repeal the current (1997 Defense of Marriage) Act,” Galt said. “It could be an issue for the Supreme Court to take up to see if it’s unconstitutional.”

Galt said he thinks because the Supreme Court ruled in June against a Texas statute that banned sodomy, it might rule that banning same-sex marriages and same-sex partner benefits is also unconstitutional.

Gay rights activists’ hope for marriage rights was also encouraged when Canada legalized gay marriage this summer.

State Rep. Len Biernat, DFL-Minneapolis, who is on the civil law committee, said Minnesota is a long way from legalizing same-sex marriage. But he said one day it will be legalized nationally.

“The (Massachusetts) ruling is an interesting step in a long direction,” Biernat said. “Look at how far gay rights have come in the last 20 years. It’s inevitable that a change in attitude will happen eventually.”