Marriage equality stalls at the Capitol despite “fair-minded majority”

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by Andy Birkey | March 31, 2009 • An unprecedented number of bills has been introduced this legislative session that would grant same-sex couples legal status similar to that of married couples. But the five bills have died quiet deaths, as leaders say they don’t have the votes to pass them, even out of DFL-dominated committees.

Advocates say the energy around marriage equality this session is new. “We went from fighting a constitutional amendment just three years ago to now seeing marriage equality bills being introduced … and instead of having a ‘defeat the constitutional amendment’ rally there was a ‘Freedom to Marry’ day rally,” said Jo Marsicano, communications director for OutFront Minnesota.

“This has clearly been made possible by the election in 2006 of a fair-minded majority with the majority being fortified in 2008.”

But for many, this session has been a disappointment. All bills in the Legislature must make it through a committee by deadline in order to stay alive. None of the marriage equality bills made it that far.

One measure, HF 1655, SF 1988 would have created a study group to “determine the extent to which structural barriers exist that negatively impact single people, same-sex couples, and co-habitating couples.” Another, HF1740, SF1732, would have allowed marriages performed in states where same-sex marriage is legal to be recognized by Minnesota. HF0999, meanwhile, would create civil union contracts as the standard across the state by removing the religious-based “marriage” from statutes.

HF893, SF120, the Marriage and Family Protection Act, would make marriage a gender-neutral institution in Minnesota, and
HF1644, SF1210 would beef up that language by specifically exempting religious leaders from having to perform or participate in any marriage for any reason.

Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, is the chair of the Civil Justice Committee, the first hurdle for the bills. He is also chief author of the civil unions bill. He had scheduled informational hearings for the bills — but not a vote — which left the bills sitting in committee. Advocates said they had enough votes to pass the bills, but Mullery insisted they didn’t.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, the chief author of the Marriage and Family Protection Act, agreed with Mullery.

“I strongly support Joe Mullery and his decision to have an informational hearing only. Why? The votes do not exist in that committee at this time to pass these bills. Many supporters believe that a vote to defeat the bills is more harmful than no vote.”

David Strand, one of dozens of citizens who have been lobbying legislators almost daily for marriage equality this session, said, “We learned that we and Mullery were counting the votes differently as one of the votes in favor has vacilated back and forth,” he said. “Without certainty whether the votes were there to pass the bills, he didn’t want the bills to be killed for the biennium by a tie vote.”

Doug Benson, a citizen who wrote the Marriage and Family Protection Act and lobbied heavily for its consideration, was disappointed that the bill is technically dead for the session.

“I naively assumed that huge DFL margins in both houses of the Legislature in a non-election year would provide a secure enough environment for the DFL leadership to allow some effort to end state sponsored discrimination against our families to progress this session,” he said. “My education continues.”

But he says they will continue to work on the issue next year. “There is a lot of outdated thinking, fear-mongering and passive anti-gay bigotry that must be dealt with at the Capitol in order for us to move forward. Those obstacles will be overcome.”

Marsicano of OutFront Minnesota agreed that marriage equality still faces serious roadblocks. “We know that marriage equality won’t become a reality under the current governor,” she said. “So we’re looking ahead to the election of a pro-equality governor as one of the vital steps in this campaign.”

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