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House votes to put gay marriage ban on the ballot

Staff//May 22, 2011

House votes to put gay marriage ban on the ballot

Staff//May 22, 2011

Rep. Steve Gottwalt introduces the bill

By: Paul Demko, Maggi McDermott and Briana Bierschbach

After five hours of emotional debate, the Minnesota House has voted to place a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the 2012 ballot. The legislation – which previously passed the state Senate on a largely party-line vote – passed off of the House floor on a 70-62 vote Saturday evening. Four Republicans voted against the amendment, with two DFLers crossing over to vote for the measure.

Republican Reps. Tim Kelly, John Kriesel, Rich Murray and Steve Smith bucked their party to vote against the GOP-led measure, while DFLers Lyle Koenen and Denise Dittrich voted for the amendment (Democratic Reps. Bobby Joe Champion and David Dill were excused from voting).

The vote comes after days of uncertainly of when – or if at all – the amendment would come up on the floor. The contentious debate also played out the day after a controversial opening prayer by outspokenly anti-gay pastor Bradlee Dean at the start of Friday’s session. DFLers cried foul after Dean questioned the faith of President Barack Obama. House Speaker Kurt Zellers apologized from the House floor for the incident.

GOP Rep. Steve Gottwalt, the sponsor of the gay-marriage legislation, said at the beginning of the debate that the purpose wasn’t to discriminate against individuals.”This is current state law,” said Gottwalt. “If the people of Minnesota decide in favor of this question nothing will change. However we know there are attempts to redefine marriage in the Legislature and in our courts.”

The state has had a law on the books since 1977 prohibiting gay marriage. But Republicans pushing the amendment argue that the legislation is insufficient because it could be invalidated by the courts. Thirty one other states have voted on gay marriage bans, with every single one passing.

Early on in the debate, Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, offered a motion to send the bill back to the Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee. “I think we should be more deliberative about this,” said Murphy. “I’m tired and I know you are too. It’s been a long week.”

Openly gay DFL Rep. Karen Clark was the first to speak on the motion. She brought up her partner Jackie of more than 20 years. “We’ve been through thick and thin together,” Clark said. “Which one of you, my colleagues, do not believe I should have my basic family rights with my partner? Please tell me. That’s what this about. I’ve paid my dues, my required share. You have to be able to face me and face your own constituents who have been calling you and tell us that’s what you believe and support.”

Kelly, a two-term Republican legislator from Red Wing, asked Murphy to withdraw the motion and allow a vote to proceed, but restated his opposition to the amendment. “I cannot help but feel this is an assault on personal freedom and choice,” Kelly said. “If we put this amendment on the constitution, we’re taking a giant step backwards.

Ultimately Murphy decided to go forward with her motion to send the bill back to committee, but it failed on a 71-61 vote.

Following the failed motion, DFLers lined up to speak, citing various personal reference points in explaining their opposition. Rep. Michael Paymar pointed to blatant anti-Semitism in the Duluth school he attended. Rep. John Persell talked about struggling to adjust when he returned home from the Vietnam War. Rep. John Ward discussed being bullied as a kid growing up with a physical disability.

“If you think that’s there is a tiny bit of discrimination in this amendment,” said Ward, “I beg you, I ask you, I implore you, to vote no.”

One DFLer standing outside the House chamber during the debate said the back-to-back speeches were “not going to change any one’s mind.” “We should have voted after Kelly spoke,” the Democrat said. “We are just cementing their beliefs right now.”

But arguably the most poignant speech of the night came from Kriesel, a freshman Republican who lost both his legs while serving in Iraq. “It woke me up; it changed me,” Kriesel said, of the day he was injured. “And as bad as that day sucked I’ve learned a lot from it.”

Kriesel also cited the experience of serving with a homosexual soldier in explaining why he opposed the gay marriage ban. “This amendment doesn’t represent what I went to fight for,” he said.

Rep. Rod Hamilton was one of the few Republicans to speak on the bill. “I have struggled with this,” he said. “This is a tough, tough choice.” But Hamilton ultimately voted to put the gay marriage ban on the ballot.

Outside of the House chamber, several hundred people sang songs and chanted, while others gathered around television screens to watch the debate. A flier circulated the anti-amendment protests outside the chamber calling out six divorced GOP legislators: Reps. Mary Franson, Doug Wardlow, Tony Cornish and Steve Drazkowski, and Sens. Pam Wolf and Julie Rosen.

Long after the Senate concluded its floor session for the day, senators from both parties were seen on the House floor watching the discussion, including GOPers Sean Nienow, Dan Hall, Dave Thompson, and DFLers John Marty, Patricia Torres Ray and openly gay Sen. Scott Dibble.

After leaving the floor, Kelly said he believes “not too far in the future” gay marriage may be viewed differently. In the meantime, he said Minnesota is in for 18 months of debate that is going to be “very divisive and very vocal.” Kelly also said he had offered to step down from the House GOP Executive Committee, but Zellers declined his offer. “There was no arm twisting, and nothing behind closed doors,” he added.

Leaving the Capitol, Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council said he was “pleased that Minnesotans were going to get to vote” on the issue.

Following the vote, protesters chanted “we’ve just begin to fight” outside the chamber. As Republicans exited the chamber, the crowd yelled “shame, shame.”

Dibble, who married his partner in California, addressed the crowd from the steps outside the House chamber. “We love our families and our families are strong,” he said. “People will know that in the next 18 months. And you know what? Thirty-one states, there’s not going to be 32.”

Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Karen Clark

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