Committee defeats marriage amendment

Waiting line
Dozens of people stood in line prior to the beginning of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at the Minnesota Capitol on April 4, 2006. The committee was hearing a bill that would put a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage on the November ballot.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

The long-awaited Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was not your typical hearing at the Capitol. For starters, people needed a ticket to get into the committee. Blocks of 50 tickets were given out to the public -- 50 to those who support the amendment and 50 to those who oppose it. A long line of people took tickets and waited patiently about an hour before the hearing started.

One of those people who was waiting to get into the committee room was Helen LaFave of Minneapolis, a lesbian and is the stepsister of Republican Sen. Michele Bachmann of Stillwater.

Sen. Michele Bachmann
Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on a bill that would put the definition of marriage on November's ballot as a constitutional amendment.
House Television Services

Bachmann is the chief author of the proposed amendment to ban same sex marriage. LaFave says she's taking the debate over gay marriage personally like everyone else involved in a same-sex relationship.

"I simply wanted to remind Michele that she does have family members that this affects in a very real way," she said. "I have not had any contact with her for a couple of years and she's never discussed this with me and I wanted to remind her that she does have family members that this affects."

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The hearing itself was a bit anti-climactic. Both supporters and opponents were given 45 minutes to testify. Catholic priests, legal scholars and family experts testified on both sides of the issue.

Helen Lefave
Helen LaFave, stepsister of Sen. Michele Bachmann, says she's taking the debate over gay marriage personally like everyone else involved in a same-sex relationship.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Sen. Bachmann told the committee it's necessary to pass a constitutional amendment so the courts can't overturn the state's existing Defense of Marriage Act. That law forbids gays to marry in Minnesota. Bachmann says the courts have allowed gay marriage in Massachusetts and warns there are court challenges to the defense of marriage laws in Iowa and Washington.

"This is a race between lawsuits and amendments. If this amendment does not pass this session, members, the people of Minnesota will be silenced until 2008 before they get another chance to vote. This will allow the amendment opponents two more years to define marriage in the court system rather than in the Legislature," she said.

The committee disregarded the concerns of those who support the amendment and defeated the proposal. Before doing so, the committee voted to change the original amendment to only allow the Legislature, not the courts, to change the definition of marriage.

Bachmann has been unsuccessful in getting the full Senate to vote on the measure and she says she'll keep trying even though it failed in committee. It already passed the Republican-controlled House. If it passes the Senate, a question would be put on the November ballot asking if marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman. If a majority of those voting in that election say "yes," the constitution would ban gay marriage, civil unions and any other legal equivalents.

Bachmann and others also argued that gay marriage would erase thousands of years of history and would be harmful to the children of gay couples.

Robert Johnson is gay but said he was married to a woman for 25 years and has four children. He says gay marriage is not needed except in the minds of gay activists.

Ann DeGroot
Ann DeGroot, director of Outfront Minnesota, testified at a Senate committee hearing that a constitutional amendment defining marriage would "create a system in which "some families are better than other families."
House Television Services

"Gay marriage would contribute to the disintegration of one-man-and-one-woman marriage, coupled with the disintegration of normal family life which has seen enough disruptions over the past 50 years," he said.

But opponents of the measure say amending the constitution would deny gay couples the rights to legal benefits provided to married heterosexual couples like hospital visitation rights and inheritance benefits.

"If this constitutional amendment passes, it won't do anything to help any family in Minnesota," said Ann DeGroot, the director of Outfront Minnesota. "It won't help battered women... it won't improve access to health care, it doesn't educate children."

She said the bill will create a system in which "some families are better than other families."

DFL Sen. John Marty of Roseville voted against the proposal because he says amending the constitution to ban gay marriage would only take away the few civil rights that many gay families have.

"I think it's nothing more than enshrining discrimination into the constitution. Yesterday we said on the Senate floor, we all pledged liberty and justice for all, not for liberty and justice for our straight families. The signs outside all tell us 'let people have a vote.' Civil rights have never been something that should be put up for a vote," Marty said.

The committee vote basically kills the bill for the session, although supporters of the amendment say they will continue to push for a full Senate vote on the measure. That is unlikely since the DFL majority has been reluctant to move the bill out of committee.

It's more likely that the measure will be a major political issue in the upcoming elections. All 201 legislators and all four of Minnesota's constitutional officers are up for re-election.