Same sex marriage: Basics on the new law

How should Minnesota law define marriage? The state has debated that question for more than 40 years. A new law has changed the definition to allow same sex marriage.

Here's a guide to Minnesota's history on the subject and the basics of the new law.

What kinds of benefits are now available to same-sex married couples?

All the state-based marriage benefits granted to heterosexual couples now extend to same-sex couples (federal benefits are still prohibited by the federal Defense of Marriage Act). According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, those include:

"State tax benefits. Married same-sex couples can now file joint state tax returns, take spousal deductions on state income taxes and receive tax benefits when transferring interests in property.

Workers' compensation. Spouses may receive workers' compensation benefits if a spouse dies in the workplace, and they may bring a wrongful death lawsuit and related civil claims that are dependent on marital status.

Cemetery plots. Same-sex spouses have the same rights to possession, care, control and succession to ownership of, and right of interment in, a public cemetery plot.

Spousal privilege. In legal proceedings, discussions between spouses are protected from disclosure in court by asserting spousal privilege.

Family law. Spouses may use state and local judicial forums in proceedings relating to separation, divorce, orders of protection and the care of any children of the couple."

Can same-sex couples be discriminated against?

No, with some exceptions. The Minnesota Human Rights Act already broadly protects Minnesotans against sexual orientation discrimination in business, employment and housing. The gay marriage law doesn't change or expand those rights, which were already in statute.

The ACLU writes:

"Anti-discrimination laws in Minnesota forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and marital status. Nothing in the new law changes this.

The new law does not permit a business that provides goods or services to the public, such as a florist or photography studio, to engage in discrimination that has been illegal in Minnesota for years --regardless of the religious beliefs of a business owner or employee.

The marriage law allows clergy and certain religious entities to refuse to perform wedding ceremonies or provide services and facilities for a wedding ceremony.

Religious institutions that provide certain services (such as adoption, foster care and social services), but that do not receive public funding for that service, may still act on a potential recipient's sexual orientation.

Under Minnesota law, religious institutions may engage in some exclusionary practices that would be unlawful for most other organizations or businesses. However, a private business, even if it is the secular business of a religious organization, may not discriminate against same-sex couples."

Will churches be able to choose not to perform marriage ceremonies of same-sex couples?

Yes. While the new law now recognizes same-sex and heterosexual marriages as equal, valid civil contracts, churches and religious associations can still refuse to conduct marriage ceremonies or any other celebrations in violation of their beliefs.

So the law makes gay marriage legal in the eyes of state government but not necessarily legal in the eyes of religion.

What is Minnesota's history on same-sex marriage?

Minnesota's early statutes banned "imbeciles," epileptics and 14-year-old girls from marrying, but stayed quiet on the question of gender.

In 1971, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled two men could not legally marry. The state's marriage laws did not specifically prohibit same-sex unions then. But the court wrote it was "unrealistic to think that the original draftsmen of our marriage statutes, which date from territorial days" would have viewed marriage as anything other than between a man and woman."

In 1977, the Minnesota Legislature amended the statute to add "between a man and a woman" after the phrase, "Marriage, so far as its validity in law is concerned, is a civil contract..."

Minnesota lawmakers wrote a same-sex marriage ban into state law in 1997 after Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which kept the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage -- and let states do the same.

In 2010, Republicans won historic majorities in the Minnesota House and Senate. In control, those GOP majorities passed legislation to let voters decide the Minnesota constitutional question on marriage, bypassing DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

In November 2012, voters rejected a constitutional gay marriage ban at the polls and also elected DFL majorities to the House and Senate, allowing Democrats to reclaim control of the Legislature.

With the amendment dead, some DFL lawmakers pushed to end the legal ban on same-sex marriage.

While it passed the Legislature and is now law, it remains unclear if that's what most Minnesotans want. A spring 2013 poll showed a majority still don't support same-sex marriage.

What are the arguments against legalizing same-sex marriage?

Same-sex marriage opponents argue the state has a compelling interest in defining marriage as between one man and one woman. "Protecting the interests of children is the primary reason that government regulates and licenses marriage," and "children do best when raised by their mother and father," says the group Minnesota for Marriage, which pushed for a constitutional ban.

The group has warned that people, small businesses and other groups will face lawsuits and "regulatory action" if they refuse to accept a law legalizing same-sex marriage, although an MPR News analysis last fall found those claims misleading and the state Human Rights Act already prohibits businesses from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

Opponents have also argued that religious leaders would be forced to perform same-sex ceremonies. Supporters, though, say that's not the case and note the bill Dayton signed would permit churches and religious groups to choose who can be married in their faith without being sued.

What are the arguments for legalizing same sex marriage?

Supporters say the law defining marriage as only for heterosexuals created multiple problems for same-sex couples when it comes to joint finances, parenting, seeing a dying partner in the hospital and other fundamentals of a committed relationship, they argue.

"We believe marriage and family are about love and commitment, working together, bettering the community, raising children, and growing old together. We believe in a Minnesota that values and supports strong families and creates a welcoming environment for all Minnesota families to thrive," writes Minnesotans United for All Families, a group that helped defeat the effort to write a same-sex marriage ban into the state constitution.

How has the definition of marriage changed over the years?

For much of Minnesota's history, marriage between same-sex couples was not banned. For decades, though, it was illegal for anyone who was an epileptic to marry; early on, the law let girls as young as 15 marry; by 1975, language prohibiting imbeciles, the "feeble minded" or insane was struck from the statute.

Marriage between an uncle and a niece, between an aunt and a nephew, or between first cousins, "whether the relationship is by the half or the whole blood," has long been banned (and remain banned under the same-sex marriage law), although by 1997 the law exempted marriages "permitted by the established customs of aboriginal cultures."

The definition of marriage as "between a man and a woman" was added in 1977.

What is happening in other states?

State laws on the issue vary.

Minnesota became the 12th state to allow same-sex marriages, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Delaware, Washington, Maryland and Maine have also approved same-sex marriage laws in the past year.

In most states, though, there are legislative or constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. North Carolina in 2012 became the 30th state to adopt a constitutional ban.

Some states allow civil unions and treat same-sex couples as spouses when it comes to state rights and benefits.

Is marriage a civil right?

Yes, at least when it comes to interracial marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court in a 1967 ruling declared laws forbidding interracial marriage unconstitutional. At that point, 16 states banned interracial marriage as in the public interest. The Supreme Court ruled those laws deprived interracial couples of "liberty without due process" and violated the Constitution's equal protection clause.

The Court wrote:

The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival ... Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State."

The Supreme Court had a chance to take on the same-sex marriage issue with the Minnesota case in 1972, five years after it struck down interracial marriage bans. Instead, it turned back the opportunity "for want of a federal question."

The ground shifted last year, though. A 2012 appeals court ruling overturning California's constitutional marriage ban effectively forced the Court's hand.

In December, the Court agreed to hear the California case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, and rule on whether California's gay marriage ban violates the Constitution's equal protection clause.

Besides the California case, the Court will also rule on a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, United States v. Windsor, and whether same-sex couples who are legally married in jurisdictions that allow same-sex marriage can be denied federal benefits.

The Defense of Marriage Act prohibits federal agencies from considering same sex marriage valid -- even in states where it's legal. So, despite the new law, Minnesota same-sex married couples are still denied spousal benefits to same-sex couples for Social Security, taxes, veterans' benefits, health and other federal programs.

Those restrictions will end if the court throws out the Defense of Marriage Act.

If DOMA is upheld, then they would be seen as married in Minnesota, but not by the federal government.

MPR News reporter Sasha Aslanian contributed to this report

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.