By Don Davis
Minnesota is a Senate vote and a governor’s signature away from becoming the 12th state to allow gay marriage.
Same-sex marriage supporters are optimistic because the House was regarded as the biggest hurdle. After the bill passed the House surprisingly easily 75-59, they were euphoric.
The Senate is due to take up the bill Monday and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton says he will sign it.
Standing for hours in the Capitol rotunda, bill backers sang “give love a chance,” their take on the protest ballad “Give Peace a Chance.” When the bill passed, they sang a line from a 1960s tune: “Goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna get married.”
Inside the House chamber, instead of the chaotic atmosphere that usually accompanies House sessions, the gay marriage debate was quiet and polite. Hardly anyone moved from their seats.
“Same sex couples, we pay our taxes, we vote … we own businesses in Minnesota,” bill sponsor Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, said. “Freedom is freedom for everyone.”
Clark and Sen. Scott Dibble, another Minneapolis Democrat, are two openly gay members and sponsors of the bills that would overturn existing law banning gay marriage. A crowd that waited outside the House chamber during the debate greeted them and their partners as heroes after the vote.
Clark said she has worked to legalize same-sex marriage for 20 years.
As she pushed her “yes” button, a picture next to it showed her parents at a 1993 Rock County parade. They carried signs promoting equality for gays.
An estimated 1,000 to 1,200 people crowded into the Minnesota Capitol Thursday, a smaller crowd than many expected.
“It’s incredible,” Shelley Medernach of Eagan said after the bill passed. “I’m 56 years old and I didn’t think I would live to see this day. It’s amazing to be here.”
Margaret Schow of Richfield said she made the trip to St. Paul to ensure lawmakers heard from same-sex marriage opponents.
“I wanted to show that there are a great number of Minnesotans who do not want them to pass this bill,” Schow said. “There are many people who do not want this.”
The bill that passed calls all marriages “civil marriage,” an attempt to allay fears that clergy would have to officiate at gay marriages.
The civil marriage change helped Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, vote for the measure.
“Not too long ago, I probably would have voted ‘no’ on this bill,” Faust said.
But, he added, he got married last summer and cannot imagine living without his wife. He said he cannot imagine government forbidding others from living with the one they love.
“Give our fellow brothers and sisters of God the same rights we have,” said Faust, a Lutheran minister.
Two Democrats voted against the bill, Reps. Mary Sawatzky of Willmar and Patti Fritz of Faribault, who live in districts that strongly back the existing gay marriage ban. Republican Reps. Pat Garofalo of Farmington, Andrea Kieffer of Woodbury, David FitzSimmons of Albertville and Jenifer Loon of Eden Prairie bucked their party and voted for the measure.
Chris Kluwe, the just-released Minnesota Vikings punter who has worked for pro-marriage activists, said in a tweet that he lobbied Garofalo. “I talked with @PatGarofalo before the vote, and he made a tough choice. Glad he did.”
The marriage bill resulted in a continuation of a campaign that started almost two years ago when lawmakers put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot to ban gay marriage. That attempt failed last November, and the two campaigns immediately began ramping up for a legislative vote to remove an existing gay marriage ban in state law.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Minnesotans are not ready for gay marriage.
“I’m not sure if this is the right thing,” he said, “but this is not the right time.”
The House turned down 111-22 a Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, amendment that would have eliminated “marriage” from state law, replacing it with “civil union.”
Kelly said he supports equal rights for all Minnesotans, which he said the civil union concept would provide.
The Red Wing lawmaker said Democrats have complained about government defining marriage, adding that is what Clark’s bill does.
When Democrats said the Kelly plan would invalidate existing marriages, Kelly countered: “There is no way government can take my marriage away.”
Rep. Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury, became one of four on the GOP side to back the bill.
“I think this is a compromise,” she said of the proposal to define marriages as civil unions.
“I think this would be a good solution so we can heal and move forward as a state,” she added.
Rural Democratic lawmakers, especially, were on the spot because many of their districts oppose gay marriage.
“This is a difficult issue and I have had many heartfelt, respectful discussions with people on both sides of the issue,” Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, said. “Based on the feedback I’ve received from constituents, I feel that voting no is the best way to represent the people of District 17B.”
Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, came out in favor of the bill.
If gays cannot marry, he said, “we will deprive Minnesotans of their rights.”
Persell said that when he woke up Thursday morning, he thought of the biblical passage: “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.” That, he said, provided assurance that a “yes” vote was proper.
“It’s about liberty,” he said.
Some constituents of Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, criticized his decision to vote for gay marriage.
A long-time friend recently told him he is gay, Radinovich said, which made him realize it is tough being gay in a small town. His vote, he added, was inspired in part by his friend.
Radinovich said he was voting for the bill because he wants all Minnesotans “to have family like mine.”
Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said she marries her high school sweetheart next month, something all Minnesotans should be allowed to do.
“Now is the time we allow all Minnesotans to marry who they love,” she said.
Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, announced ahead of the vote that he would favor gay marriage.
“The bill does not force a religious institution to marry two individuals of the same sex.” Falk said. “Furthermore, language has been added to the bill to offer additional comfort that no religious institution will be forced to act in violation of its own religious beliefs.”
Falk released a letter late Wednesday indicating that he will vote for gay marriage. The lawmaker said “I don’t like it” is not a good reason to oppose the bill. “Marriage is about love. Marriage is about commitment. Marriage is about equality. Marriage is about finding the person that you cannot live without.”
Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, was one of the first to hug Clark after the vote.
“In my seven years in the Legislature, this is the most difficult issue I have ever voted on,” Ward said. “I thought, prayed long and hard and listened to both sides before following my conscience and voting for freedom and equality.”
“As a legislator I believe that breaking down walls of injustice and inequality is part of my job,” Ward said.
Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake, was opening mail before Thursday’s debate began.
“The voices of my constituents are what carried most of the weight for me over the past few months,” McNamar said. “I said from the very beginning that I would make my decision based on what my constituents told me. Because of the number of constituents urging me to support the bill, and because of my personal commitment to respect everyone as equals, I voted in favor of the bill to allow same-sex marriage.”
The state should not decide “who gets to enjoy certain rights simply because they have differing religious beliefs,” Rep. Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette, said. “This bill won’t take away anyone else’s rights. It simply allows same-sex couples to have equal rights under the law.”
Conservative religious groups were not happy with the vote.
“It marks a radical redefinition of marriage and will lead to lawsuits attacking the religious freedoms of Minnesotans,” Minnesota Family Council President Tom Prichard said. “This legislation means it’s no longer an expectation in state law that a child will have a relationship with his or her mother and father.”
Reporter Danielle Killey contributed to this story.