By Don Davis
More than 100 same-sex couples across Minnesota married soon after it became legal Thursday, setting off celebrations big and small, while others protested gay marriage and said the fight will continue.
Two conservative groups announced hours after gay marriage became legal that they are launching an initiative to defeat legislators who in May voted to overturn a same-sex marriage ban. Also, four members of a controversial Kansas church engaged in a sign and song battle with about 100 gay marriage advocates on the state Capitol steps.
The announcement and protests are signs that the debate will go on, especially in the 2014 state House campaign.
“The majority of Minnesotans support marriage between one man and one woman, and they deserve a majority of representatives in their government who do as well,” said John Helmberger, chairman of Minnesota for Marriage and CEO of Minnesota Family Council. “The Marriage Majority Initiative will serve as a resource to Minnesotans who want to see a pro-marriage majority restored in the Minnesota House.”
His comments contrasted with those of gay couples who married, often after being in relationships for years.
“It’s a big day for us but also an important day for Minnesota,” Hibbing’s Susie Mattson said as she and Athena Jordon prepared to marry in Duluth after 12 years in a relationship.
Couples came from as far away as Texas to be married.
Among those from other states were North Dakotans Bob Stone and Jan Titus, who married in Moorhead along with 17 other couples.
“I hope we can spend a lot of years together,” the 66-year-old Stone said. “I hope North Dakota comes along and recognizes it.”
In Crookston, three couples wed shortly after midnight.
“Being able to take part in history is pretty awesome,” Katherine Craig said. “We’re excited to be the first couple to get married in Polk County, and be one of the first married couples in Minnesota.”
The biggest ceremony was in Minneapolis City Hall, where Mayor R.T. Rybak married 46 couples, four more than he had planned.
Those happy couples are bound for Hell, Westboro Baptist Church members said in front of the Minnesota Capitol.
The 43-member Topeka, Kansas, church is well known for traveling the country and telling anyone who will listen that God says being gay is sinful. They delivered that message in Rochester, downtown St. Paul and on the Capitol steps Thursday.
Timothy Phelps, son of the church’s founder, said that an American swing toward homosexuality dooms the country.
Phelps’ group sang songs for most of their 40-minute picket, including one with the lyrics: “God won’t let this go.”
At the same time, about 100 pro-gay marriage activists sang: “All you need is love, love is all you need.”
Each Westboro protester held two signs, and many of the gay activists brought signs of their own, many talking about love but some suggesting the Westboro quartet should go back to Kansas.
Among those watching the church picketers were four members of an Eau Claire, Wis., family, at the Capitol to support gay Twin Cities friends and relatives.
“It is a happy day in Minnesota,” Carrie Bultman said.
She was pleasantly surprised that the dueling groups kept things peaceful. “We expected to be worse than it was.”
Phelps said that when Westboro shows up, there often are clashes.
Thursday’s wedding rush came after two years of strong political posturing on the subject. Minnesotans defeated a proposal last November to put a gay marriage ban in the state Constitution and in May the Democratic-controlled Legislature decided to allow the marriages.
Many Republicans who opposed allowing gays to marry now say that issue has been decided and they do not plan to deal with it in future campaigns. But Thursday showed that the political matter is not dead.
“While pastors and churches will not be forced to participate in ‘the solemnization or celebration’ of same-sex marriage, the rest of us will be, or will face fines under the state’s Human Rights Act,” Helmberger said.
Pro-gay marriage forces have been collecting money for weeks to support lawmakers, especially from rural areas, whose votes in favor of gay marriage could hurt their re-election chances.
On the first day of gay marriages, those supporting the issue made far more noise than groups like Helmberger represents.
“Moments like this are powerful reminders of how politics can change lives for the better,” Chairman Ken Martin of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party wrote to supporters. “I hope you’ll join me in recognizing this special occasion by thanking the DFL leaders who helped make it happen. This is also the perfect time to congratulate the newlyweds.”
Reporters Mike Creger, Cali Owings and Will Beaton contributed to this story.