Legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in Minnesota has survived two committees on party-line votes, and the bills are now headed to the full House and Senate.
Democrats on both panels approved the measure Tuesday, while Republicans opposed it. The votes came after a full day of passionate public testimony from both sides of the issue.
Supporters of the bill say they want to take the next step, following last fall's defeat of a proposed constitutional amendment that would've banned gay marriage. DFL State Rep. Karen Clark of Minneapolis, chief author of the bill and a lesbian, told members of the House Civil Law Committee that legalizing same-sex marriage is the right thing to do.
"No Minnesotan should be told that it is illegal to marry the person they love, and that includes me, and many people that you all know and love," Clark said.
The chief sponsor of the Senate bill, Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believes marriage is strengthened when it is available to everyone. He said current law prevents equal access to marriage.
"Since every child needs a mom and a dad to be born... I want to ask you this question: which parent do I not need, my mom or my dad?"
"This is about people working hard, taking responsibility, trying to get along, being good citizens, and government right now is standing on their necks," Dibble said.
The bill allows churches or other religious organizations to opt out of providing wedding-related services or facilities if they oppose same-sex marriage. But opponents still raised concerns. Ken Connelly, a lawyer with the national organization Alliance Defending Freedom, told the Senate panel that the religious exemption is inadequate and will lead to persecution.
"If the government declares that same-sex unions and opposite-sex unions constitute equally marriages under the law, the law will eventually punish and stigmatize those who stand by traditional marriage as discriminatory and irrational," Connelly said.
Several opponents also warned about the potential impact of same-sex marriage on children. They contend that kids are better off with parents of a man and a woman in a traditional marriage.
Grace Evans, 11, of Fridley told House committee members that changing the law would take away something important.
"Since every child needs a mom and a dad to be born, I don't think we can change that children need a mom and a dad," Evans said. "I believe God made it that way. I know some disagree, but I want to ask you this question: which parent do I not need, my mom or my dad?"
Supporters who testified in favor of the bill included several same-sex couples, doctors, business leaders and union members. A mother, Randi Reitan of Eden Prairie, spoke to both committees with her son, Jake, who is gay.
"We come today as a family with dreams that one day soon Minnesota will grant Jake the freedom to marry," Reitan said. "We want for Jacob what has been so precious to us the last 40 years."
Republican Sen. Dan Hall of Burnsville voted against the bill. He explained that he does not want to redefine marriage. He said he has been taking a lot of criticism for his opposition.
"I can't tell you how many letters I've gotten that said, 'you're a bigot,' or tweets 'you're a bigot because you disagree,'" Hall said. "Really? Really? I'm trying to be a nice guy but I have a different opinion. So now you're labeling me, name-calling me."
Groups backing the legislation were quick to characterize the committee action as historic. Some lawmakers also considered the long-term ramifications. DFL Sen. Richard Cohen of St. Paul said he believes the votes on the marriage bill this session will be remembered for many decades.
"This is not in any way to suggest the lack of sincerity on the part of members of this committee or members on this body that vote opposite of myself," Cohen said. "But I think we get the chance to vote to be on the right side of history."
The bill now heads to the floor in both chambers. Final votes in either are not expected until later in the session. DFL leaders have said they first want to complete most of the work on budget bills. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said he will sign the marriage bill if it reaches his desk.