Minn. Republicans introduce civil unions bill to derail gay marriage effort

Minnesota state capitol in St. Paul.

Minnesota state capitol in St. Paul.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — A group of Minnesota Republicans introduced a bill Wednesday to let gay couples join in civil unions, calling it an alternative to same-sex marriage that could end a corrosive fight on the issue.

Marriage equality supporters quickly condemned the measure as inferior and unequal.

Minnesota state capitol in St. Paul.

“We have a choice right now. We can engage in a gay marriage debate where we’re going to have half of Minnesota fighting half of Minnesota on this issue,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. “If you look at the issue of civil unions, the overwhelming majority of Minnesotans support this.”

But Sen. Scott Dibble, chief Senate sponsor of the gay marriage bill, said civil unions are no longer sufficient at a time when nine U.S. states and the District of Columbia have allowed gay marriage. Eight more U.S. states allow some form of civil union or domestic partnership.

“Civil unions are a separate and unequal status,” Dibble said.

The Minneapolis Democrat said one limit of such unions is they would be good only in Minnesota, and not transferable to other states that allow gay marriage or even their own version of civil unions. It also could leave Minnesota gay couples in civil unions without recognition under federal laws that benefit married couples in the event the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

“We’re moving forward with marriage this year,” Dibble said. “The time is right.”

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, is spearheading the civil union effort. He said they would give gay couples all the benefits of marriage but also keep government out of the debate over whether it should be legal.

The push for gay marriage springboards from Minnesota voters’ defeat last fall of a constitutional amendment that would have banned it.

Kelly was one of only four Republicans in the Legislature who voted against putting that amendment on the ballot. But he said it’s too big a leap from the amendment’s rejection to assuming that Minnesotans are ready for legal gay marriage.

Kelly said he’s recruited one Democratic co-sponsor for his bill, Rep. Kim Norton of Rochester. He said he hoped to attract more Democrats.

So far, only one Republican state lawmaker has said he’d vote to legalize gay marriage: Sen. Branden Peterson of Andover.

Kelly said if he can’t get a committee hearing on his proposal, he might offer it as an amendment to the gay marriage bill when it comes up on the House floor. That’s expected to happen later this session.

But House Speaker Paul Thissen, a Democrat who supports gay marriage, said Wednesday that civil unions is an idea “whose time has passed.”

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