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Published November 05, 2010, 07:49 AM

Gay marriage foes boosted by Minn. GOP takeover

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Gay rights activists in Minnesota thought 2012 would be the year they could finally make a serious push for gay marriage in the state, but a surprise Republican takeover of the Legislature has them back on the defensive instead.

By: PATRICK CONDON, Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Gay rights activists in Minnesota thought 2012 would be the year they could finally make a serious push for gay marriage in the state, but a surprise Republican takeover of the Legislature has them back on the defensive instead.

Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, said Thursday his group will push for a statewide vote in 2012 to ban gay marriage and civil unions in Minnesota's Constitution. Previous efforts to do so in 2004, 2005 and 2006 met a firewall in the strongly Democratic state Senate, but that liberal majority crumbled in Tuesday night's election.

And despite a vow by new Republican legislative leaders to focus primarily on job creation and spending cuts when they take over in January, the likely new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committe said there's "a lot of bottled-up desire" in his party to finally put gay marriage before state voters.

"The statement I'll make is that there's a keen interest by a majority of the members of both chambers to define marriage, and to allow the public to do so," said Sen. Warren Limmer, a Republican from Maple Grove.

Prichard said it doesn't matter to his group if lawmakers take up the debate in 2011 or 2012 as long as it's on the ballot by 2012. Even if Democrat and gay marriage supporter Mark Dayton prevails in the unsettled governor's race, he wouldn't be able to block a statewide vote: Constitutional referendums from the Legislature require neither a governor's signature nor can they be vetoed.

For gay rights supporters, the Democratic loss of the state House and particularly the state Senate was an unexpected shock. The GOP takeover was not widely predicted even by Republicans, and with Dayton leading in polls prior to the election, gay activist groups glimpsed for the first time a fully favorable landscape to put Minnesota on the growing list of U.S. states that legally recognize gay unions through marriage or other civil arrangements.

"We thought this would be the year to move ahead," said Monica Meyer, executive director of OutFront Minnesota, the state's most prominent gay rights group.

Now, as Prichard said, "the tables have turned." He and allies have long maintained that Minnesota voters if given the chance would mimic those in numerous other U.S. states that banned gay marriage through statewide votes. Minnesota state law already defines marriage as between one man and one woman only, but supporters of the constitutional amendment say extra protection is needed to make the definition of marriage harder to overturn in the courts.

Gay marriage opponents have a prominent ally in St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt, who in September recorded a video message and mailed it to hundreds of thousands of Minnesota Catholics in which he endorsed the constitutional amendment.

Then-state senator Michele Bachmann spearheaded the 2004-06 efforts to pass the constitutional amendment. Though unsuccessful, Bachmann parlayed her statewide exposure into a successful bid for Congress later in 2006. She was reelected to a third term in Congress earlier this week.

Limmer, a one-time co-sponsor of Bachmann's efforts, said Thursday it wasn't yet clear who would lead the new legislative effort or if it would happen in 2011 or 2012. He said the constitutional prohibition would cover not just marriage but civil unions, as foes consider civil unions simply a differently-named alternative to marriage.

Prichard said he believed the Family Council built goodwill among many freshman Republicans by calling and mailing voters prior to the election and encouraging them to "vote their biblical values and protect marriage," in the words of a Family Council press release.

State Sen. Scott Dibble, a gay Minneapolis Democrat, had intended in 2011 to push his bill to make Minnesota's definition of marriage gender-neutral. Expecting a Dayton win, Dibble saw the chance to "start moving on these ideas a little more tangibly, to see real progress happen." Like most of his fellow Senate Democrats, he didn't see Tuesday's electoral wipeout coming.

Now, Dibble said, he'll have to shift his focus to trying to stop the constitutional amendment. He warned Republicans could find themselves on the wrong side of evolving views toward gay relationships.

"They push these policies at their own peril, because young people across the political and religious spectrum have already largely settled this question in their mind," Dibble said. "They've settled on the side of fairness."

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