By Don Davis
Tears of sadness that rolled down faces of gay Minnesotans and their supporters two years ago became tears of joy today as Minnesota senators voted to allow same-sex couples to wed.
Senators voted 37-30 Monday to remove a state law that bans same-sex marriage. The vote followed a Thursday 75-59 House vote, leaving Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature the only task remaining before gays can marry starting Aug. 1.
Dayton plans to sign the bill Tuesday.
Bill sponsor Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said that allowing gays to marry would make for stronger communities and state.
“It is a very simple bill, but sometimes the simplest bills are the most powerful in affecting people,” Dibble said.
Moments after the vote, Dibble and other Democrats received a rousing welcome by the 2,800 people who jammed into the Capitol today.
Senators engaged in a solemn but energetic debate.
Among provisions Dibble emphasized are those that protect clergy and religious organizations. He said clergy would not be required to marry same-sex couples and his bill would not affect religious organizations’ dealings with gay couples.
Dibble said state law already only deals with civil marriage, but his bill that adds “civil” before “marriage” in state law to give those concerned about affecting religious organizations more comfort.
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said the bill does not go far enough to protect people who have “a contrary opinion.” He said all religious organizations would not be protected and no business would be protected.
One argument gay marriage opponents have raised is that businesses that do not support it would be forced to deal with gay couples.
Dibble said that there will be no changes in restrictions about how groups dealing with gay couples can be treated. “What is true today will be true tomorrow.”
Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, offered an amendment, which failed, that would have extended protections to allow religious groups opposed to gay marriage to avoid the issue.
“It is about living your faith, seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” Gazelka said, such as not forcing church-related colleges or private businesses to deal with gay weddings.
Dibble said Gazelka would rescind part of the existing state human rights law.
“They can’t pick and chose who walks into their front door and asks for service,” Dibble said.
Gazelka and Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow lake, offered the only two proposed amendments Monday. Both failed with most Democrats and a handful of Republicans voting against them.
The Westrom amendment would have kept “mother, father, husband, wife” in various places of state law.
“We would continue to use the same terms we have forever,” Westrom said.
Dibble, who married his partner Richard Leyva in California, said that his bill provides “an ability to bring together loving families… (and provide) freedom they have been denied for so long.”
The Senate chamber was quiet during the debate, with about 75 House members and Senate staffers lining the walls to watch history being made.
Limmer, who authored a bill two years ago to put a gay marriage ban in the state Constitution, said that senators came into the debate “without clear consensus from our community.”
In May of 2011, the then-Republican-controlled Legislature sent voters the constitutional amendment proposal. When that vote occurred, gays and their supporters stood in the Capitol, upset that their dream of marriage was threatened. That is when tears of sadness flowed freely.
Voters rejected the proposed amendment last November and the campaign continued to work toward today’s vote that produced joyful tears.
“I can’t think of another vote that I have taken that will impact so many people,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said.
He called it “such a positive impact.”
The two sides of the debate agreed on its importance.
“This is a once-in-a-generation kind of a bill,” Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, said. “Pro or con, it doesn’t matter.”
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said he is concerned for his grandchildren. “There are going to be some questions about family and family traditions.”
While Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said that once the bill passes “it will be OK,” Ingebrigtsen wondered.
“I am not quite so sure everything is going to be OK,” said Ingebrigtsen, who said his area is firmly against gay marriage. “That is why I ask members to recognize the core of traditional marriage that we have had for thousands of years.”
Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said that he was happy to walk up the Capitol’s front steps en route to the debate.
“Today is one of those days, those rare days where we can make a real and recognizable difference in people’s lives…” he said. “At the core of the debate today is love.”
Westrom agreed it was a big day.
“I hope we all know how significant this day could be if this bill passes,” Westrom said. “I think there are a lot of unintended consequences.”
Westrom wondered what would happen in schools, hinting that it will be required that teachers support gay marriage.
“I think this is a wrong step in history, a step we should not be going down,” Westrom said.
Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said his constituents are not all on the same side on the issue, but he voted for the bill.
Reinert, one of the few single senators, said he wants to give everyone the same right he has, the chance to marry.
“I vote today to give something that is not really mine to give,” he said.
Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove and a new mother, said she wants to tell the state’s children: “No matter who they fall in love with some day, the people of Minnesota will treat them with respect.”
And, Sieben added to children, “today we vote to affirm that we respect you and we want to have a more fair and more equal Minnesota.”
A Capitol full of Minnesotans, mostly favoring gay marriage, chanted, sang and cheered throughout the day, well before senators even began their debate.
They sang “America” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and celebrated, anticipating senators to approve gay marriage this afternoon.
Handfuls of same-sex marriage opponents knelt in prayer at various spots around the Capitol.