ST. PAUL, Minn. — A Republican state senator who supports legalizing same-sex marriage in Minnesota said Wednesday that he hopes to convince GOP colleagues to join him in abandoning the party’s traditional stand on the issue.
Sen. Branden Petersen, who represents District 35, which includes portions of Anoka County in the northern Twin Cities metropolitan area, said he will likely co-sponsor a marriage equality bill expected to be introduced soon in the state legislature soon, and is the state’s first Republican lawmaker to signal support for allowing same-sex couples to wed.
Petersen said his backing hinges on a few conditions being met, chief among them that religious exemptions that don’t want to perform same-sex marriages would be exempt from doing so. That provision has been a common feature of gay marriage legislation in other states.
“I think the time has come,” Petersen told The Associated Press, and said he said he hoped his support would sway not just his fellow Republicans wavering on the issue, but Minnesotans in general that it’s OK to support gay marriage. The Star-Tribune first reported Petersen’s break from his party on the issue.
Agreeing to co-sponsor the proposed measure is a radical shift from Petersen’s previously held position on the issue — he was among a majority of GOP state legislators who put a failed constitutional amendment on the November 2012 ballot asking voters to add language banning same-sex marriage.
Petersen, 27, admitted his decision could be politically damaging in the next election cycle, as voters in his district supported the marriage ban by a narrow majority.
While he declined Wednesday to elaborate on his support of last year’s anti-gay marriage amendment, Petersen acknowledged that having a gay father-in-law has since influenced his thinking.
“It’s an issue where we all travel on our own path,” Petersen said.
On Wednesday, Republican activist Andy Parrish blasted Petersen in an email fundraising pitch for his political committee, A Stronger Minnesota. The group “holds ‘Republicans’ like Petersen accountable for straying from traditional Minnesota values,” wrote Parrish, who helped run last fall’s unsuccessful campaign to pass the gay marriage ban.
Sen. Dan Hall, a social conservative from Burnsville, said he was disappointed in Petersen but doubted any other Republican senators would join him.
“I think same-sex marriage is wrong,” Hall said. “It’s a lifestyle that is not healthy spiritually or physically. I think any time the government OKs something, it’s an endorsement or promotion of it so I think it’s unhealthy for us to do that.”
Still, the push for a 2013 legislative vote to allow same-sex marriage had been gaining steam.
Gov. Mark Dayton restated his support in his State of the State speech, and Democratic legislative leaders — while not fully embracing the effort — have signaled they won’t stand in its way. House Speaker Paul Thissen and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk have said they’d vote yes.
Dayton called Petersen’s decision “terrific.”
“I admire him for his courage and conviction, and hope others will follow to make it bipartisan legislation,” Dayton said.
House and Senate bills to legalize gay marriage are expected in the next few days, though the debate may not get going until later this spring. The chief sponsors are expected to be two Minneapolis Democrats, Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Karen Clark, who are both gay and in long-term relationships.