Groups supporting and opposing same-sex marriage held competing rallies Wednesday at the State Capitol to highlight an issue that appears to be gaining momentum in this year's governor's race.
The separate rallies were held by the National Organization for Marriage, a national group that advocates for marriage only between a man and a woman; and OutFront Minnesota, a state group whose efforts have included a push for legalizing same-sex marriage in Minnesota.
The National Organization for Marriage bought a significant amount of TV advertising earlier this year. The ads warn Minnesotans of what the group considers a pending threat against traditional marriage, claiming that "special interest groups are pushing for judges and DFL politicians to impose gay marriage on Minnesota."
The same organization is focusing attention on Minnesota again this week, making three stops in the state as part of a nationwide tour.
On the grounds of the State Capitol Wednesday, Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage told about 250 people at the rally that Minnesota voters deserve a chance to vote on a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman.
"We view ourselves as part of a new civil rights movement, committed to protecting our most fundamental, most social institution," said Brown. "A civil rights movement committed to stopping the threats to religious liberty for both individuals and organizations. A civil rights movement committed to something that in the 1960s was key, the right to vote."
Brown highlighted his organization's earlier ballot successes in California and Maine. With the help of local churches and some key advocacy groups, he now has Minnesota on his list of targeted states.
Chuck Darrell of the Minnesota Family Council said he thinks traditional marriage is threatened like never before. Darrell pointed to several bills introduced in the Minnesota Legislature that seek to legalize same-sex marriage.
"This election in November is probably the most important election for family values and life in a generation, if not forever," said Darrell. "If we lose the governorship, you're going to see that stuff ramrodded through."
Darrell didn't mention Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, and he didn't have to. Most voters on his side of the marriage debate already know Emmer is the only like-minded candidate in the race. All of the leading DFL and Independence Party candidates for governor are on record supporting same-sex marriage.
Rally participant Helene Heaney of Waconia said the marriage issue is one of the big reasons she's supporting Emmer.
"I think Emmer is going to represent the people for what we stand for, not what someone else is telling him he should stand for," said Heaney.
But as Heaney and other opponents of same-sex marriage gathered outside the Capitol, about 150 people on the other side of the issue held a counter-rally inside.
"It is my hope that one day all of us can be married, one day very soon," said Robyn Provis, a former pastor at All God's Children Metropolitan Community Church in Minneapolis.
Provis and other supporters are counting on a new governor to help pave the way for those marriages.
Anne Bennett of St. Paul said she's pleased that only one candidate for governor is against same-sex marriage. But even if Tom Emmer loses to a Democrat, Bennett said she doesn't expect dramatic changes.
"I don't think necessarily just because a DFL candidate would get elected, it means gay marriage is happening," said Bennett. "But I would hope there would be a couple of positive steps to getting there."
After the rally ended inside the Capitol, many of the protesters joined a group of about 30 people holding a small counter-demonstration to the National Organization for Marriage rally.
The outdoor rallies lasted a little over an hour. Several law enforcement officers were on hand to monitor the events, but it appeared there were no major incidents or confrontations between the two groups.
The dueling Capitol rallies followed a dustup earlier this week over Target Corp.'s recent donation to a group running ads on behalf of Emmer. Target's CEO responded to the criticism with a letter to employees that affirmed the the retail giant's support for the gay, lesbian and transgendered community.
Monica Meyer, interim executive director of Outfront Minnesota, says her organization wants Target to join the debate over same-sex marriage.
"If they're playing in a political arena, then we're asking them to be clear about their support for equality, and actually come out in support for marriage equality and anti-bullying legislation, and really call on the candidates that they're supporting to champion issues of equality," said Meyer.
Target didn't provide a response in time for this report. The same-sex marriage debate will get more attention this week when the National Organization for Marriage makes stops in St. Cloud and Rochester.
Meanwhile, several same-sex couples have filed a lawsuit to try to get the courts to overturn Minnesota's law against same-sex marriage. That effort could take several years to run its course.
(MPR reporters Tim Nelson and Elizabeth Dunbar contributed to this report)