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Declaring same-sex marriage battle won, Project 515 ends

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Marriage amendment defeated
Celebrating the vote against a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage was voted down on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2012.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Erica Mauter never imagined when she was growing up that she'd be able to get married. Polls in Minnesota as recently as a decade ago showed that a large majority opposed same-sex marriage. But as advocates publicly pushed the issue, opinions began to change. 

• Timeline: The deep roots of the marriage debate
• How the Minnesota marriage amendment was defeated
• Dayton signs same-sex marriage bill at Capitol ceremony

And just a year after Mauter and her wife were granted the same rights as her straight neighbors, it's the little things that stand out most. 

"It comes out in the most mundane ways, things like dealing with our mortgage or credit card accounts or health insurance," Mauter said. "It became real in a way that we really didn't expect."

After less than a decade of advocacy, the organization that helped spearhead this push for equal rights for same-sex couples in Minnesota is declaring its mission accomplished. 

In a vote that was followed by toasts with champagne and sparkling pear juice, Project 515's board of directors decided Thursday night in Minneapolis to close up both non-profit branches of the group by June 30. 

Project 515 co-founder and current board chair John Larsen said the group never expected to accomplish their ultimate goal in less than a decade. 

"I remember sitting in the attic of our house and saying, 'We want to go out of business,'" Larsen said. "It's a really, really rare occasion when you get to achieve a mission as an organization." 

Project 515 was formed in 2006 as states across the country were moving to ban same-sex marriage. It was named for the 515 state laws that once treated same-sex couples differently than straight couples. The laws touched on areas as distinct as hospital visitation rights to being able to buy a family fishing license. 

Larsen said legalizing same-sex marriage was rarely even broached in the early days. Instead the group focused on overturning all 515 of the laws that they saw as discriminatory. 

"As we were introducing specific legislation on specific discrimination, we were dancing around the word marriage because it was so off-putting for so many people," Larsen said. 

The group focused on public education and advocacy at the state Legislature. Larsen said their incremental approach and focus on individual rights broke down barriers with people who opposed same-sex marriage and built alliances with people across the political spectrum. 

"We don't look particularly scary, and we talk very smart, and we're just like your neighbors," Larsen said. "We were sowing a lot of seeds for people to really think about what this means, this term marriage, and what it means to treat people equally in the state of Minnesota."  

When Republican majorities in the state House and Senate approved a bill in May 2011 that put a constitutional same-sex marriage ban before voters, that incremental approach necessarily broadened, said Project 515 Executive Director Jake Blumberg.  

In state after state, voters who were given the option to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage supported the proposal. As protesters thronged the Capitol building following the House's approval of the ballot question, Blumberg said the leaders of Project 515 and Outfront Minnesota, which has long advocated for LGBT rights in the state, sat on the floor and strategized about how best to defeat the amendment. 

The two organizations founded Minnesotans United for All Families and got to work, eventually adding over 700 other coalition members. By election day,  Blumberg said the coalition had mobilized over 27,000 volunteers and recruited over 67,000 donors. 

"It took a lot of people, just thousands upon thousands of people, telling their personal stories...about why marriage matters, and why we didn't want to enshrine discrimination in our state constitution," Blumberg said. "It's been described and is one of the largest grassroots campaigns in the history of Minnesota."

The outcome was in question right up until the vote. But when the final results were tallied, Minnesota became the first state in the nation where voters rejected a constitutional ban of same-sex marriage.

"It was a huge, huge victory full of joy, relief and gratitude for all those who voted no," Blumberg said. "But it was also a call to action for what was next." 

The 2012 election gave same-sex marriage supporters a majority at the Capitol. And they had the strong backing of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

"We were in a position to make history once again by doing what we now refer to as the Minnesota double play, turning immediately from the 2012 election and working quickly and swiftly to pass the freedom to marry in that legislative session," Blumberg said. 

The legislation legalizing same-sex marriage passed both the House and Senate and was signed by the governor on May 14, 2013. Blumberg said Minnesota's experience has served as an inspiration to advocates of same-sex marriage across the country. 

"Minnesota was the first state in the Midwest to gain the freedom to marry through the legislative process," Blumberg said. "Minnesota made a difference across the country when we saw that this was something that was not only a right on the coast, but in America's heartland."

In its final acts, Project 515 will donate a plaque to the city of Minneapolis commemorating the same-sex weddings that took place there on Aug. 1, 2013. The group also plans to install bricks in Loring Park that acknowledge key supporters throughout the organization's history. 

Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) carried the bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the Senate. He said Project 515 leaves behind a political lesson about how to approach creating change that was once unthinkable. 

"We're all equal. Regardless of the circumstances of our birth, everyone should have opportunity available to them," Dibble said. "That may not be as true today as it should be, but we can make it more true tomorrow." 

But Dibble said Project 515's lasting legacy is something more. 

"It will be just an incredible thing to contemplate when we're long gone and nobody remembers any of our names," Dibble said. "When two young people fall in love and want to get married and bring the person they love home to meet mom and dad, they can just do that -- and it won't be considered anything less than just how life is."