Six months after Minnesotans rejected a constitutional amendment that would have banned gay marriage, the Minnesota House Thursday made an historic turn, voting to legalize same-sex marriage in Minnesota.
In a respectful and sometimes emotional debate that led to a vote largely along party lines, the House voted 75-59 to allow same-sex couples to be legally married in the state, sanctioning those civil unions and opening doors to financial and other government benefits they are now denied.
The state Senate is expected to vote Monday. Gov. Mark Dayton has said he will sign the bill if it reaches him, which would make Minnesota the 12th state in the country to allow same-sex marriage. Same-sex weddings could start August 1.
MORE MARRIAGE VOTE COVERAGE
• Maps: Same-sex marriage votes compared
• Today's Question: Time to redefine marriage?
• Live blog: Recap of live blog coverage of House vote
• Story: DFLer in trouble over vote
• Interactive: Deep roots of the marriage debate
• Special report: How the amendment was defeated
The bill's author, Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, told her colleagues that gay couples also contribute to Minnesota and deserve the right to be married. She said the historic change will bring legal fairness.
"It's become clear that most Minnesotans believe that marriage is a unique promise of love, commitment, responsibility and fidelity that two people share," Clark said, "that we believe in Minnesota in treating others the way we want to be treated, and that none of us would want to hold that it is illegal to marry the person we love."
About 2,000 people packed the Capitol corridors to watch the two-hour debate underway on the House floor. Their chants and rally cries could be heard in the background of the two-plus hours of debate, while others who couldn't get into the Capitol gathered outside in the rain.
Both supporters and opponents of the bill held signs and prayed. Among them was Earnest Lowe Jr., of St. Paul, who chanted, "Say no, in the name of Jesus." On the opposite side, Patty Taylor of St. Paul voiced her support for the bill.
"He's saying, 'In the name of Jesus, say no,' and I say, 'In the name of Jesus, say yes!' " Taylor said. "I'm a Catholic and I'm proud to say yes to marriage and fairness and equality; it's going to happen."
On the House floor, opponents argued the bill would alter a centuries-old conception of marriage and leave those people opposed for religious reasons tarred as bigots.
"We are redefining an institution that has been the bedrock of our society for generations," said bill opponent Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine.
MARRIAGE AMENDMENT CAMPAIGN LAID THE FOUNDATION
Thursday's House vote was a stunning political shift that seemed unimaginable last fall when Republicans controlled the state House and Senate following big wins in the 2010 election. However, the GOP push to take Minnesota's current statutory ban on gay marriage and cement it into the state constitution energized liberal groups.
The result was a massive get-out-the-vote campaign in November that not only defeated the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage but helped deliver DFL majorities back to both houses. That laid the path to Thursday's vote to repeal the current state legislative ban on same-sex marriage, which was passed in 1997.
Some opponents recalled last fall's debate over the constitutional amendment, saying action on legalizing same-sex marriage is being rushed.
"Minnesotans were told last fall that if they voted no [on the amendment], nothing would change," said bill opponent Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover. "We went from 'nothing at all will change' to 'everything will change.' "
Both sides acknowledged Minnesotans remained badly split over the question. Forty-seven percent of Minnesota voters backed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage last November. A survey earlier this spring showed a majority still don't support same-sex marriage.
A FEW LAWMAKERS BUCKED PARTY, CONSTITUENTS
Leading up to the vote, a great deal of attention was given to rural Democrats who represent districts that supported the marriage amendment. Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, a late addition to the yes column, said he thought a lot about his own recent marriage in making his decision.
"It just makes me think about what our marriage means, and it's about happiness and it's about love and it's about a partnership and it's about a commitment," said Falk. "There's no way I could in good conscience deny those same rights to my fellow Minnesotans."
Freshman Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, has already taken heat from some of his constituents on the issue. But he still voted yes.
"For me this is a vote for freedom and equality. This is a vote for the rights of all of my constituents," he said.
Practically speaking, making same-sex unions legal opens doors to mutual health, legal and other benefits for same-sex couples at the state level. When it comes to spousal benefits for Social Security, taxes, health and other federal programs, Minnesotans are still bound by the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which remains in place and prohibits federal agencies from considering same sex marriage valid even in states where it's legal.
Lawmakers Thursday, though, framed the issue in larger social terms, with supporters applauding what they saw as an expansion of basic civil rights and critics warning that redefining marriage would bring unintended consequences.
"It took centuries for people to be treated equally under the law" regardless of skin color, said Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis. "Now is the time to treat people equally under the law, whether they were born gay or straight."
Four of 61 House Republicans voted for the bill: State Reps. David FitzSimmons of Albertville, Pat Garofalo of Farmington, Andrea Kieffer of Woodbury and Jenifer Loon of Eden Prairie.
Two of 73 Democrats voted no: State Reps. Patti Fritz of Faribault and Mary Sawatzky of Willmar.
FitzSimmons, a freshman, successfully amended the bill to reword state marriage laws with the term "civil marriages." FitzSimmons said the amendment will strengthen the measure's religious protections.
"There is a distinction between what is happening at the courthouse and what is happening in your church, in your synagogue and any other house of worship," said FitzSimmons. "I believe that's an important distinction for us to make, I believe we have to spell it out clearly in law."
Some opponents, though, raised the specter of future conflicts between the would-be law and religious groups and warned the protections didn't go far enough. Others said simply they voting their constituents' wishes.
Nationally, the landscape on the issue remains divided. More than three dozen states have a constitutional or statutory ban on gay marriage. President Bill Clinton, who signed the federal gay marriage ban into law 16 years ago, recently called that decision a mistake and has urged it be overturned.
In December, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to rule on whether California's gay marriage ban violates the Constitution's equal protection clause. That decision may remake the political landscape again.
MPR Reporters Tim Pugmire and Sasha Aslanian contributed to this report.