A Republican state lawmaker is pushing for civil unions in Minnesota as an alternative to legislation to legalize same-sex marriage.
State Rep. Tim Kelly of Red Wing announced his proposal Wednesday and described it as a way to end the political debate over a divisive social issue. But supporters of same-sex marriage were quick to reject the idea.
Kelly was among four House Republicans who bucked their party in 2011 and voted against putting a constitutional amendment on the state ballot that asked voters to make marriage only between a man and a woman, a provision already in state law.
The defeat of that amendment last fall launched a push in this year's legislative session to legalize same-sex marriage. But Kelly said his opposition to the amendment was never intended as an endorsement of same-sex marriage.
"If you heard my message and you listened to my statement on the House floor, I was completely opposed to government intervention," Kelly said. "Now that the conversation has changed, it would be completely hypocritical of me to make the statement that now I believe government should take the role."
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"I thought civil unions would have been proposed by this time, and I'm afraid because it has not, now we've put all or eggs into one basket proposing a gay marriage bill."
The alternative proposal comes three weeks after House and Senate committees approved the same-sex marriage bill on party-line votes and set the stage for floor votes later in session. Kelly said he is proposing something that he expected earlier from Democrats who now control both houses of the Legislature.
"I thought civil unions would have been proposed by this time, and I'm afraid because it has not, now we've put all or eggs into one basket proposing a gay marriage bill," he said. "If that fails, there's no fallback plan."
The bill has three Republican co-authors, among them state reps. Pat Garofalo of Farmington, Andrea Kieffer of Woodbury and Denny McNamara of Hastings.
Kelly described the proposal as bipartisan, because state Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, also signed on as a co-author. Norton did not attend a news conference today.
All four Republicans said they will vote against the same-sex marriage bill. Garofalo said a civil union alternative makes sense.
"The choice we face as a Legislature now is are we going to have a divisive fight that pits half of Minnesota against half of Minnesota, or are we going to unite and come together on geographic and partisan lines," Garofalo said. "My advice to the DFL majority is I've seen what happens when half of this state fights half of this state, and it ain't pretty. So, choose wisely."
Kelly's bill would add the words "civil union" alongside existing references to marriage in state law. He described the result as giving the benefits of marriage to same sex-couples. But the House and Senate authors of the gay marriage bill disagree.
State Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, said civil unions have been largely unworkable in the states that have tried them.
"In New Jersey for example where they had civil unions in effect for 10 years, they found out that couples who went to hospitals, couple who had issues with their children could not count on the authorities understanding what a civil union was," Clark said. "'What is a civil union,' they'd say. 'We don't know what that means.' "
State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, has similar concerns. Dibble said he views civil unions as a "separate" and "unequal" status for gay couples.
"It's some sort of a legal construct, and it doesn't even provide the kind of access to legal rights and benefits that marriage does," Dibble said. "You can't transport it across states. You can't access federal benefits, and it just doesn't give you the level of recognition and access to the full equality and freedom that's guaranteed in our constitution."
Dibble said he thinks Minnesota is ready to legalize same-sex marriage, and he remains confident that his bill will pass this year.
The two statewide groups working on opposite side of the same-sex marriage issue also weighed in on the Kelly bill. The pro same-sex marriage group Minnesotans United said it strongly opposes what it views as an attempt to legally classify same-sex couples as "second-class citizens."
A spokeswoman for the group Minnesota for Marriage, which opposes the move to legalize same-sex marriage, said they were reserving judgment on the civil union proposal.