Crystal and Falcon Heights may soon join 11 other Minnesota cities that have already given couples, both opposite-sex and same-sex, a way to have their relationships recognized: domestic partner registries.
While registries don't carry much legal weight, proponents see them as a welcome symbol of inclusion as Minnesota heads toward a vote on a constitutional amendment defining marriage next year.
"Some of them are the usual suspects that you'd expect: Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Rochester being the four biggest cities in the state," said Phil Duran, staff attorney for Out Front Minnesota, which provides technical support to cities interested in creating registries.
Cities here don't have the power to decide who can marry, but they can acknowledge the unmarried couples who are also part of their communities by registering their relationships at city hall.
Being registered could help if one of them is hospitalized and the other needs information from doctors. It provides proof of a relationship for a private employer that offers health benefits to domestic partners. Or they could simply qualify for a family membership at the city pool.
"What really changed was in 2010, Edina became the first suburb to pass an ordinance of this sort, and that seemed to be a game changer," Duran said.
After Edina came the suburbs of Richfield, St. Louis Park, Golden Valley, Maplewood and Robbinsdale. In greater Minnesota, there's also Red Wing. Duran points out more than 1 million Minnesotans now live in communities that have partnership registries.
"To some degree, the train has left the station," he said.
The Minnesota Family Council, which opposes the registries, hasn't put much energy into fighting them, said its president Tom Prichard. Instead, the organization is setting its sights on the big prize: Next year's vote on a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman.
"These efforts to pass registries, which don't have legal impact but are more of a political statement, ultimately do point to the marriage issue because normally they've been a stepping stone from domestic partnerships, to civil unions, to ultimately marriage," said Prichard. "And that's why we think it's important that people are able to address that ultimate question of marriage."
Despite Prichard's assertion, it's unclear whether there's a real connection between cities adopting domestic partnership registries and the coming vote on the marriage amendment.
Still, proponents of the registries see them an early indicator of Minnesota's growing acceptance of non-traditional families, while critics consider them an end-run to gay rights that voters will quash.
Moorhead voted down a registry in May of 2010 -- the only city to do so. City Council member Mark Hintermeyer remembers casting his no vote because he saw registries as controversial, and outside the scope of city business.
"We can get into all kinds of areas like Happy Meals, and how long your grass can be and how many windows and how many cars you can park. It's really a sensitive issue, Hintermeyer said. "I think we just try to stay as focused as we can to just safety, roads, mosquitoes ... fighting floods. It's those things that directly impact [the city] that we need to worry about. I think we try to stay at that level most of the time."
The month after the registry failed in Moorhead, it passed unanimously in Edina. A year later, nine couples have now registered in Edina, about half of them opposite sex, and half of them same sex.
Rochester has also had its registry up and running for a year, and 21 couples have signed up. The first pair was Michael Fridgen and Don Lewis. Fridgen says they'd already gotten married in Iowa when that state legalized same-sex marriage, and they'd held a private ceremony for family and friends before that.
"We'd already had those two experiences. I wasn't expecting that going to the city clerk's office would be as big a deal as it was. But it was very cathartic to know that in the actual place where we live, that we're recognized and welcomed," he said.
The Human Rights Commission of Crystal will hold its first reading of a proposed registry ordinance Monday at 6:30 p.m. The Falcon Heights City Council will hold its first reading on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
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