A Minnesota Senate committee approved a measure Friday that would allow Minnesota voters to decide whether to ban same-sex marriage in the Minnesota Constitution.
After three hours of testimony and debate, all the Republicans on the committee voted for the measure and all the Democrats voted against.
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was a microcosm for what is expected to be a much larger debate in Minnesota. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, acknowledged that Minnesota law already forbids same-sex marriage, but he said voters should have the final say.
"I can't imagine anything more unacceptable than to allow a small group of politicians, or perhaps a smaller number of judges, to define marriage rather than the people of Minnesota," said Limmer.
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After Limmer's brief statements, supporters and opponents of the measure were given one hour each to testify. Overall, the testimony was respectful and emotional.
Opponents argued that putting the measure on the ballot opened the door to incorporating a form of discrimination into the Minnesota Constitution. Jeff Wilfahrt of Rosemount said his son, Andrew, was gay. But he added that mattered little to the soldiers he served with in Afghanistan before he was killed in action in March.
"He laid his life down for this Constitution," said Wilfahrt of his son. "Same-sex marriage is already illegal. How much more injurious can you be to this minority? How much more insulting to use the Constitution, meant to secure rights, as a means to deny right?"
But supporters of the amendment say allowing same-sex marriage would undermine traditional marriage.
"The values I received from my grandparents, my parents, aunts and uncles all lay on the foundation of marriage between one man and one woman," said Sergio Choy, pastor of Ministerio Maranatha church in Bloomington. "If it wasn't for one man and one woman I wouldn't be here today. My children wouldn't be here today."
On the other side was Bruce Ause of Red Wing, who said his daughter is in a committed relationship with another woman.
"I frequently hear that the marriage amendment is needed to support and protect families. I ask you today, why isn't my daughter's family worthy of support?" he asked. "If this amendment passes today, how will I explain to my grandson that in the eyes of Minnesota, his family is worthless?"
Supporters of the proposal to change the constitution were careful not to criticize same-sex couples or their families. But some warned that children of same sex couples could be harmed over the long term.
An adult child of a gay couple later testified that he's doing "just fine." He's in law school and told the committee his wife is pregnant with their first child.
The testimony did little to change the final outcome of the proposed amendment. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved it on an 8-4 party line vote.
There is also little doubt that the issue will reach the 2012 ballot. Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers told reporters he expects both the House and Senate to pass it.
Groups on both sides of the issue appear to be gearing up for a broader campaign aimed at voters. The Minnesota Family Council and the Catholic Church have both lobbied heavily in favor of the amendment. John Quinn, the bishop of the Winona Archdiocese, spoke on behalf of all of the Catholic bishops in Minnesota.
"There is no doubt about the teaching of the Catholic Church on this issue," said Quinn. "Marriage is the union of one man and one woman, and law must reflect what we know from reason, experience, tradition as well as revelation."
Other Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders testified in favor of the amendment as well. But some other religious leaders noted that the religious community is split on the issue.
"There are clearly faithful religious views on both sides of the issue of marriage," said Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker at Mount Zion Temple Church in St. Paul. "To put morality on an up-or-down vote is to risk the majority imposing its religious views on the minority."
A committee in the Minnesota House is scheduled to hold a hearing on the House version of the bill on Monday.