In Minnesota, bouquets and brickbats for high court's marriage ruling

Mark Dayton, Scott Dibble, Karen Clark
Gov. Mark Dayton signed Minnesota's same-sex marriage bill in front of the State Capitol on May 14, 2013. Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and state Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, watched.
Jim Mone / AP File Photo

Updated 12:50 p.m. | Posted 12 p.m.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision Friday allowing same-sex marriage nationwide likely won't change many hearts and minds in Minnesota, where the political argument ended two years ago but deep social divisions remain.

Battles in 2012 and 2013 over gay marriage led to a dramatic seven months in Minnesota politics that swung the state from a longtime ban on same-sex unions to becoming the 12th state in the country to allow them.

But while a majority backed those changes, the margins were slim. Surveys showed that deep divisions on the issue remained, especially in rural Minnesota.

Those divisions were easy to see Friday. Those who supported Minnesota's same-sex marriage law applauded the court. Those who fought the law called the decision the wrong path for the nation.

"Today the Supreme Court recognized that marriage is about love and family, and that every marriage is equal," state Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and state Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, said in a joint statement.

The pair led the state legislative charge in 2013 to allow same-sex marriage. Dibble was able to legally marry his partner in August 2013, after the law took effect. "Social recognition and access to literally thousands of rights, benefits and guarantees means that families will be more secure, and our communities will be stronger for that," they said.

It was a grim day, however, for groups that oppose gay marriage and had fought vigorously in Minnesota to keep it illegal.

"The Supreme Court has no authority over God's word. True marriage has been and will continue to be between a man and a woman," the Minnesota Family Council said in a statement posted Friday morning on its Twitter account, along with the hashtag #religiousfreedom.

"Now that five justices on the Supreme Court have forced a redefinition of marriage on tens of millions of Americans, will there be tolerance for those whose faith still teaches that marriage is the union of a man and a woman?" asked John Helmberger, the family council's CEO.

The Court's ruling today heightens the need for Congress and Minnesota to pass measures "to ensure that people of faith aren't forced by the government to violate their beliefs about marriage," Helmberger said in a statement.

University of St. Thomas law professor Teresa Collett called the decision a "Constitutional power grab." States, not the Supreme Court, should be able to decide what makes a legal marriage, Collett added.

She said she expects to see more legal battles over freedom of religion as people of faith express their opposition to same sex marriage.

Minnesota's statewide and national Democratic leaders applauded the decision.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who signed Minnesota's gay marriage bill into law, called the court's ruling a "huge step forward, toward equal rights and guarantees for all citizens under our Constitution."

State Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, who shepherded the state's same-sex law through the Legislature as Minnesota House Speaker, praised the ruling, saying, "Minnesotans stood on the right side of history and then helped shape it for the better."

Minnesota's Republican leaders and others who pushed to keep same-sex marriage out of the state were publicly silent Friday morning on the Supreme Court decision.

Minnesota's journey to same-sex unions was extraordinary — an unprecedented seven-month swing in Minnesota politics that began in November 2012 when Minnesotans rejected a plan to write the state's 40-year gay marriage ban into the state constitution.

That vote's political momentum helped remake the Legislature in 2012, turning majority control of both houses to Democrats who in May 2013 changed the law, making Minnesota the first state to legalize same-sex marriage after defeating an amendment to write a ban into the state Constitution.

That didn't mean, however, that Minnesotans had changed their views dramatically. The constitutional ban on same-sex marriage nearly passed — 47 percent wanted it.

In June 2014, more than a year after the Legislature backed same-sex marriage, a poll (.pdf) showed the deep divisions remained — only 52 percent of Minnesotans said then that gay marriage should be allowed, while 40 percent said no and 9 percent weren't sure.

While the ruling doesn't affect Minnesota's same-sex marriage protections, supporters say it's a huge deal in states where those unions were not recognized — including just over Minnesota's northwest border.

In North Dakota, a couple who challenged that state's ban on same sex marriage say the Supreme Court's ruling gives them legal and financial protections they've been denied.

Bernie Erickson and David Hamilton were married in Canada nine years ago. They live in Fargo where their marriage was not recognized.

"It's a day of celebration and a day of really kind of high emotion," Hamilton said. "It's almost like the day we actually got married in Winnipeg. It's that emotional."

North Dakota officials are making plans to start issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples.

Practically speaking, the Supreme Court's decision won't create many ripples in Minnesota. But the ruling published Friday (.pdf) does contain a line important to Minnesota's history on the issue.

In May 1970, two Minneapolis men, Jack Baker and Mike McConnell, applied for a marriage license. At the time, Minnesota's marriage laws didn't mention gender, but Hennepin County rejected their request.

Baker and McConnell sued the county and lost. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled against them as well. The 1971 ruling in Baker v. Nelson set the precedent against same-sex marriage in Minnesota. The pair appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case "for want of a substantial federal question."

Tucked into Friday's ruling allowing same-sex marriage across the country was a line from the Supreme Court: "Baker v. Nelson is overruled."

MPR News reporters Brandt Williams and Dan Gunderson contributed to this report.

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