Says debate could be more civil
When it comes to going public on the marriage amendment that goes before voters in November, it’s been a fairly lopsided affair for lawyers.
Some 30 firms and 1,600 legal professionals have joined the Minnesotans United for All Families Coalition, a group working to defeat the amendment.
In a recent Star Tribune commentary, a group of managing partners and presidents at seven high profile Twin Cities firms argued the amendment, which would define marriage as between one man and one woman, would hurt the ability of Minnesota business to attract top-notch talent. They urged all members of the Minnesota bar to oppose it.
With less fanfare, a group of attorneys working to get the amendment passed has been adding members and rolling out a campaign of its own. Lawyers for Marriage, a group affiliated with larger Minnesotans for Marriage, formed last month.
About 40 attorneys have joined, and organizers expect more to step forward. The group plans to do outreach, public speaking, and serve as a resource for attorneys and other Minnesotans on the Vote Yes campaign.
Kevin Conneely, the group’s chairman and an attorney at Leonard Street and Deinard in Minneapolis, freely admits that if it wasn’t for the number of high profile lawyers with “lofty titles” who have recently made public statements against the amendment, his group might not exist.
He said he’s against law firms making public stands on either side of the issue and believes the debate in legal circles could be more civil. Members of his group are as dedicated in their beliefs as those on the other side, Conneely said. The response from legal professionals, including those in outstate Minnesota, has been positive, he said.
“People on both sides of this issue should be able to talk freely about it, and we can disagree, but I think as lawyers we have a special role to play to help the public learn about the issue and about how a constitutional amendment works in our state. As a profession, we can’t appear to be partisan,” he said. “We can be a place where like-minded attorneys can go without trading on their firm name.”
Teresa Collett, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, also joined the group. She said she has been surprised that so many law firms have waded in to the same sex marriage debate.
“I would have assumed that more firms would remain circumspect on political issues,” she said. “There is not unanimity in the legal profession on this issue and it was time for the other point of view to be heard.”
Same sex marriage is not recognized under Minnesota law. If the amendment passes the definition of marriage in Minnesota will be defined as between a man and a woman and codified in the state’s Constitution. Supporters say this is necessary to prevent future court decisions or legislatures or recognizing same sex marriage in the future.
They point to the case of Benson v. Alverson which was sent back to the district court earlier this year. In the case, a group of plaintiffs sued the Hennepin County Registrar for failure to provide them with a marriage license because they were same sex couples. The appellants argue that their rights were violated solely because they were same sex couples and that the Minnesota Defense of Marriage Act is a violation of their Minnesota Constitutional Rights.
Supporters of the amendment fear that if the plaintiffs prevail it could serve as a foothold to recognizing same sex marriage.
“It comes down to who gets to decide [how marriage should be defined] first? The people of Minnesota? or a judge or future lawmakers?” said Evan Wilson, an attorney with the Metropolitan Airports Commission. “I have seen a lot of focus and movement on the other side of this issue and I want people to hear what we have to say. That our existing definition of marriage is proper and amending the constitution to say that is necessary.”
Wilson, Collett and Conneely realize that not everyone agrees with their stand. Could a company like General Mills, who recently came out against the marriage amendment, factor in a lawyer’s views on the issue when shopping for legal counsel?
“I think there is a potential that people will be proud to work with you, or have you as their lawyer, if you are for the amendment,” Conneely said. “I am not worried about [losing any business] as a result of my thoughts on this issue. Joining this group allows me to speak in my individual capacity as an attorney and as a citizen-voter.”
Collett said that the University of St. Thomas has a policy that allows for employees to speak publically on political issues.
Wilson said he is acting in his individual capacity, and not as a reflection of his employer, by joining the Lawyers for Marriage group.
“This issue is important enough that I wanted to be involved in speaking out on. I can do that as an individual without bringing my employer with me,” he said.