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Minnesota voters will decide on gay marriage ban

People on the two sides of a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage stand next to each other Saturday in front of the Minnesota House chamber. They chanted and waved signs most of the day. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Voices broke with emotion Saturday night as Minnesota representatives engaged in a quiet and serious debate over gay marriage.

Powerful speeches brought out hitherto unrevealed personal histories and brought tears to many eyes before the House voted 70-62 to allow Minnesotans to vote on defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

"We are going to plunge Minnesota in a deeply divisive fight over who and how we love," Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said about the proposed constitutional amendment they considered for more than five hours in the most emotional legislative debate in recent memory.

The somber, quiet debate contrasted sharply with chanting and sign waving that dominated hallways outside the House chamber for than two days. Hundreds who gathered in the Capitol on both sides of the issue became silent as discussion began at 6:23 p.m. Saturday, watching televisions showing the debate.

Bill sponsor Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, said his proposed state constitutional amendment would "change nothing" because state law already defines marriage as between a man and a woman, just like the proposed constitutional change.

But, Gottwalt said, it is such an important concept that it should be enshrined in the Constitution instead of leaving the decision up to politicians and judges.

"This allows the people of Minnesota to decide if the definition of marriage should be placed permanently in the state Constitution," Gottwalt said.

Senators passed the proposed amendment earlier. Constitutional amendments go directly to voters once passed by the House and Senate. In this case, the public vote will be in November 2012.

Supporters of the proposed amendment mostly remained silent, while opponent after opponent brought up personal stories.

Debate on the proposal was unusually solemn, partially due to a Friday morning flare-up when a youth pastor known as anti-gay delivered a controversial House prayer that led to the House speaker issuing an apology.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, told his colleagues that the amendment would "remove some personal choices and freedoms from a select few."

"If we put this amendment on the Constitution, we are taking a giant step backwards," said Kelly, who along with Rep. John Kriesel of Cottage Grove came out earlier against Gottwalt's bill.

Kelly asked Kriesel how he lost both legs.

Kriesel replied: "I was on combat patrol and we encountered an improvised explosive device. ... I chose to go to Iraq so I could defend our way of life ... and bring our way of life to an oppressed people on the other side of the world."

Others also said that liberty is a reason to allow gay marriages.

Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, said the amendment has no place in the Constitution.

"To me, marriage is a religious undertaking," Persell said. "I don't think the word even should be in state statue."

"If you give a hoot about liberty in this state and this country ... I'm going to say it is your obligation to vote against this," the Vietnam veteran added.

Kelly told fellow Republicans, most of whom oppose the amendment, that when asked during campaigns they said they oppose gay marriage. However, Kelly added, "you didn't make promises to impose your will on other people."

Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth, said he told many of his legislative colleagues: "Search your conscience and do what is right, as you do it."

For gay marriage, he urged, "let us acknowledge the holiness of that relationship."

"Millions and millions of dollars will be poured into this state on both sides," the freshman lawmaker said, adding that pain he saw in the House chamber Saturday night would be relived during a campaign on the amendment.

Gauthier said representatives should remember the final three words in the Pledge of Allegiance: "justice for all."

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said he was not going to speak on the issue until Thursday's controversial prayer attacked President Obama's Christianity.

Huntley said he was married 48 years ago, him a Catholic and his bride a Lutheran. "My brothers and sisters would not come to the wedding."

Also married 48 years ago were Obama's parents, a black and a white, which was illegal in 26 states.

"The Gottwalt bill will take us back 48 years," a quiet Huntley said. "I grew up in the '60s, obviously, and we have come a long ways baby and I don't want to go back 48 years."

One of the most emotional of many emotional speeches came from Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, who talked about her lesbian partner of 22 years and their family.

Clark and her partner have thought about getting married in Iowa, where judges overturned state law to allow gay marriage, while her 94-year-old father still can enjoy it.

"Please don't make me go off to Iowa," Clark pleaded. "I am a child of Minnesota."

Murphy said she worries that if the amendment would be on next year's ballot, there will be 18 months of divisive campaigning.

Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd, using his deformed hand to point, said, "I understand discrimination. I have experienced discrimination. ... I am not willing to allow discrimination into our state Constitution."

Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, revealed that he recently discovered one of his great-grandfather was a black slave.

Photo IDs pass

A bill requiring Minnesota voters to show a photographic identification before casting ballots passed the House 74-58 and heads to a likely veto by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Republican Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake, a former secretary of state, said the bill is needed to prevent voter fraud. It requires a voter to show a driver's license or other photo ID.

If a voter does not have a photo ID, the state is to provide a free one.

Dayton long has said he only will sign election-related bills that receive strong bipartisan legislative support. Kiffmeyer's bill split Democrats and Republicans.

Kiffmeyer has said that if Dayton does not sign the bill, she likely will bring up a new plan to amend the state constitution to require a photo ID.

Democrats said that requiring a photo ID hampers the elderly, college students and others from voting.

"You create speed bumps for them on the way to the voting place," Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said.

If a person goes to a polling place but does not have a proper ID, he still can vote, but within seven days must produce a valid ID before the vote is counted.

Coal power OK'd

Power from a new coal-fired Spiritwood, N.D., power plant could be used in Minnesota under a bill senators passed 44-22 and was awaiting House approval Saturday night.

Electricity from other coal plants also could be used.

The bill is a compromise between previously passed House and Senate versions. While the Senate originally voted to allow coal power without limits, the compromise would restrict how many plants could provide power.

Existing coal-fired power plants are not affected by the bill, and the Spiritwood plan is the only one about to go on line.

"How many jobs are going to be created in North Dakota because of this legislation?" Sen. Mary Jo McGuire, DFL-Falcon Heights.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said the question should be: how many jobs would Minnesota without adequate and affordable power?

While many Democrats complained that coal causes pollution, Rosen said modern coal plants have devices that scrub out most particles.

Hoffman seeks hearing

An attorney for state Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R-Vergas, asks for an ethics hearing before lawmakers adjourn Monday night.

Attorney Frederic Knaak sent a letter to Senate Ethics Chairwoman Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, on Saturday saying the quick review is needed to be fair to Hoffman. Hoffman is accused of violating Senate ethics rules by tweeting that a fellow senator called mentally ill persons "idiots and imbeciles."

However, Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, said she was talking about a term that used to be part of the titles of mental health facilities.

The Ethics complaint, filed Friday by Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, alleges that Hoffman "misled the public by writing and publishing a statement which falsely describes Senator Goodwin as personally using derogatory labels for those with mental illnesses." Rest said that violates Senate ethics rules.

Knaak argued against any delay in the Senate Ethics Committee hearing the Hoffman case. He said a delay would allow "these purported allegations to linger before she can clear herself through the committee."

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.