Politics and Government

Minnesota Senate passes transgender protections, abortion 'refuge' bills

Demonstrators are rallying in the rotunda
People rally in the Capitol rotunda Friday ahead of Senate votes on bills tied to transgender and abortion protections.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Updated 4:30 p.m.

The Minnesota Senate Friday passed a trio of proposals aimed at legally safeguarding people who come to Minnesota for abortion and gender-affirming care and outlawing what’s called conversion therapy for minors.

The moves come as states around the country have banned or seriously limited access to abortion in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade and after 12 states – including Minnesota’s neighbors Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota – have banned gender-affirming care for minors.

Passage of the bills in the Senate sends each proposal to Gov. Tim Walz’s desk, and he has said he will sign them.

The gender affirming care bill, called the trans refuge bill by supporters, passed by a party line vote of 34-30.

Supporters said the bill showed Minnesota would treat all people with respect and love.

"I wish that other legislatures across this country shared our values. They don't. But guess what? If you need gender affirming care -- and that is life-saving care, it's medically necessary care. If you need it, you can come to Minnesota,” said Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul, one of the bill’s cosponsors. “If you're scared, or you're looking for a new place to build your family, we want you here in Minnesota. We want you to take refuge here."

Opponents saw the issue differently.

Sen. Michael Kruen, R- Blaine, said the bill will put Minnesota in the middle of child custody disputes and that it violates the U.S. Constitution. 

“This bill is the state of Minnesota telling the rest of the county that we aren’t going to honor your laws or your court orders if we don't like them,” Kruen said. “And that is not how this country works.” 

Ahead of the debate on Friday, dozens of supporters and opponents rallied at the Capitol, holding signs that read “Trans Rights are Human Rights” and “Protect Kids.” LGBTQ and reproductive rights groups said the passage of all three bills would send a clear message that Minnesota welcomed patients traveling for care.

“These bills are essential and they represent a moment in time where we are facing attacks on reproductive rights and LGBTQ communities on our youth all across this country,” said Kat Rohn, director of OutFront Minnesota.

“Minnesota has a chance to stand up. Minnesota has a chance to speak up on these issues, to pass laws that will ensure that young people, that adults, that families, that care providers have the protection they need to do the right things and to advance good evidence-based health care,” Rohn added.

Amber, a 32-year-old transgender woman from North St. Paul, held up a sign that read, “Pass the Trans Refuge Bill” during a Friday morning rally. She declined to share her last name out of concerns for her safety.

She said that she wanted to show her support for the legislation and for LGBTQ people.

“I’ve seen so many stories about what’s happening in other states around the country and just how much hate there is out there, and I want to show my support here for the people who are doing the right thing,” she said. “I want Minnesota to be that beacon of hope for people in this dark time.”

Across the rotunda, Rita Hillmann Olson, a 59-year-old accountant from New Prague, southwest of the Twin Cities, said she came to the Capitol to stand with Republicans in the Senate and to oppose the trio of bills.

“Parents need to be able to raise their kids. The fact that the state feels that they know what’s better for these kids I consider as a very sad state of where our government is going,” Hillmann Olson said.

Abortion and gender care safeguards

The “refuge” bills grant legal protection to people who travel to Minnesota for abortions and gender-affirming care and to the providers who treat them.

The bills would prevent Minnesota courts or officials from complying with extraditions, arrests or subpoenas related to reproductive health or gender-affirming care that a person receives in Minnesota.

As states around the country prohibit or restrict the care options, DFL lawmakers said they needed to create a legal refuge here.

The Senate passed the abortion protection bill 34-29.

“I am so proud that in Minnesota, we are standing with people and we are saying, ‘We will not police your body in our state,’” said Sen. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven, said before the vote. “We are saying that you are safe in Minnesota. We are saying that we will protect your bodily autonomy in Minnesota.”

Demonstrators are rallying in the rotunda
Demonstrators are rallying in the rotunda ahead of Senate votes on a conversion therapy ban, Reproductive Defense Act and Trans Refuge bill on Friday, April 21 in St.Paul.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Sen. Paul Utke, a Park Rapids Republican, also said that passing the bill would send a message that other state’s laws weren’t important.

“This isn't right now. It hasn't been right before, and we just haven't done it,” Utke said. “I don't think this is the proper bill to start telling others that this is going to be a sanctuary spot. You can come here and do whatever you want, and in violation of the laws where you actually came from.”

Walz earlier this month issued an executive order directing state agencies and officials not to comply with other state’s efforts to penalize out-of-state patients who travel to Minnesota to pursue gender-affirming care. 

The bill’s supporters said it’s important to guarantee that protection in state law.

Minnesota physicians who provide gender-affirming care said they’ve already seen an uptick in prospective patients from states where their options have been outlawed.

Conservative groups and GOP lawmakers have opposed the bill and said that young people could come to regret their decisions later but have little recourse to reverse the results.

The Minnesota House has passed both the Reproductive Defense Act and the Trans Refuge Act

During his State of the State speech on Wednesday, Walz, a second-term Democrat, said that Minnesota would take the opposite tack of conservative states that had outlawed the health care services and welcome patients traveling to Minnesota.

“They want to put bullies in charge of your health care,” Walz said. “We want to put you in charge of your health care, and put bullies in their place. And that’s why we protected access to gender-affirming health care and established an ironclad right to reproductive freedom.”

Conversion therapy ban

The Senate passed a bill Friday that bans so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth and vulnerable adults. The vote was 36-27, with two Republicans joining Democrats in voting for it.

Under the bill, those who engage in the practice with vulnerable adults or those under the age of 18 would be subject to discipline from a professional licensing board under the proposal.

The practice, which is designed to change a person’s sexual orientation, has been widely discredited by physicians.

The Minnesota House passed the bill earlier this year as well as in several years past, but historically the proposal has not been able to clear the hurdle in the Senate.

LGBTQ advocacy groups, psychologists, medical associations and Minnesotans who’d experienced conversion therapy have said the ban is overdue and that the practice is traumatic to young people.

“Conversion therapy is heinous and barbaric. It destroys lives. It divides families. It isolates people from community and from faith. It alienates them from themselves, their true authentic humanity. It says you are a pariah, disordered sinful,” bill author Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said. “So let's just call it what it is: torture. So today, we say enough, it stops here in Minnesota.”

Some Republicans and therapists who practice conversion therapy have said they worried the bill could stifle free speech and conversations between young people and their faith leaders or therapists. The bill only addresses mental health practitioners. 

“This bill seeks to prohibit young people and vulnerable adults struggling with sexual identity or gender identity from seeking the help of licensed mental health counselors who are guided by their faith beliefs,” Sen. Eric Lucero, R-Saint Michael, said.

Twenty states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have outlawed conversion therapy, as have several Minnesota cities.

Walz in 2021 issued an executive order deeming the therapy dangerous and directing state agencies to prevent the practice. The governor doesn’t have the authority to ban the practice on his own.

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