Johnson comments ignite smoldering marriage amendment debate

Chuck Darrell
Chuck Darrell of Minnesota for Marriage Darrell held a news conference to report that 81,000 Minnesotans have signed a petition calling for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

The emotionally charged gay marriage issue made its first major appearance at the state Capitol this week when one group pushing for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage called for Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson to resign. The group criticized the Willmar DFLer for telling a group of New London and Spicer pastors that he had spoken to several members of the Supreme Court about the state's Defense of Marriage Act.

In this excerpt from a recording of his remarks, Johnson tells the group that it wasn't necessary to push for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. He says members of the court assured him they would not overturn Minnesota's current law banning gay marriage.

Sen. Dean Johnson
Sen. Dean Johnson, shown at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, where he defended remarks he made regarding conversations he said he had with Supreme Court justices over the state's marriage laws. Johnson was in Mississippi as part of a farewell to Minnesota troops heading to Iraq.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"I have had a number of visits with them about our law and all of them everyone one of them including the the lady who just stepped down, Kathleen Blatz, who was my seatmate for four years, she was the chief justice. You know what her response was, 'Dean, we all stand for election too, every six years.' She said 'We are not going to touch it,'"

Johnson's comments were recorded without his knowledge. Kathleen Blatz says she and Johnson never talked about the issue. A statement released by the Minnesota Supreme Court also said no such promises were made. Several groups, including Minnesota for Marriage, Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage and the Minnesota Republican Party said Johnson's comments damaged the integrity of the Minnesota Supreme Court and raised questions about his judgement.

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Johnson initially released a statement saying his comments were poorly worded. Johnson is in Mississippi seeing off Minnesota soldiers heading for Iraq. He told Minnesota Public Radio that he had informal conversations with one judge and has met with other judges on other issues. Johnson said he did nothing wrong and returned fire at his critics.

"They see Dean Johnson, the majority leader, stopping what they're trying to ram through the Minnesota Legislature. No issue is going to be rammed through the Minnesota Legislature. Every issue will be given due process," he said.

"We've heard enough from Sen. Johnson and it's time that he listened to the people of Minnesota who are saying 'let the people vote,'" countered Chuck Darrell with Minnesota for Marriage. The group has been lobbying for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Minnesota since a Massachusetts Supreme Court allowed same sex marriages in that state in 2003.

I think people know I don't support gay marriage. This is a diversion. We know it's a political deal to get more people to ballot.

Darrell says Johnson and other Senate DFLers are preventing the full Senate from voting on the proposal. Darrell held a news conference to report that 81,000 Minnesotans have signed a petition calling for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

The Republican- controlled House already passed the measure. If it passes the Senate, a question would be put on the November ballot asking voters if the Minnesota Constitution should define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. If a majority of those who vote in that election vote yes, it would become part of Minnesota's Constitution. Darrell says Johnson can end the controversy if he lets every member of the Senate vote on the measure. "We believe the only way he can rectify this is by simply allowing the marriage amendment to come out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and come to the Senate floor for a fair and open and honest debate. That's all we're asking for," he said.

Darrell believes the proposal would pass if the full Senate were forced to vote on it. Darrell abruptly ended his news conference when asked who recorded Johnson's comments.

The amendment proposal is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee next month. It was defeated in committee two years ago and attempts to force a vote by the full Senate have failed several times over the past few years.

Minnesota for Marriage has targeted 12 senators the group accuses of holding up a vote on the issue. One of them is DFL Sen. Dallas Sams of Staples. He says he'll vote against moving the bill out of committee. Sams says he believes the GOP is using the issue to boost Republican turnout in the November election.

"I think people know I don't support gay marriage. This is a diversion. We know it's a political deal to get more people to ballot," he said.

The debate isn't likely to end soon since both supporters and opponents have scheduled different rallies on the issue for next week.