Updated: 4:00 p.m. CDT.
ST. PAUL, Minn. — On the eve of a historic House vote, the group lobbying to pass marriage equality legislation in Minnesota threw its weight Wednesday behind a proposed change to the bill that gives more comfort to churches opposing same-sex marriage and could make it easier for Republicans to support it.
The House is scheduled to debate and vote Thursday on a measure that would make the state the 12th in the country to allow gay marriage.
An amendment posted Wednesday from GOP Rep. David FitzSimmons suggests reframing the bill’s proposed changes to Minnesota’s marriage laws, swapping in the term “civil marriages” in all instances whether couples are of the same or different genders.
Richard Carlbom, director of Minnesotans United, the lobby group pushing for gay marriage, told The Associated Press that the group is backing the amendment. It’s meant to guarantee that religious organizations couldn’t be fined, punished or stripped of special status for refusing to perform gay marriages.
The group’s support is critical for the success of the amendment, which has the potential to draw Republican support for the bill. A religious protection clause had been in the bill, but some Republicans thought it wasn’t strong enough.
“It just makes it clear we’re talking about civil marriage, not religious,” Carlbom said. He said it’s superior to another Republican proposal, to allow civil unions, which gay marriage supporters said would relegate gay couples to a substitute version of marriage.
While the measure’s advocates stress they are confident they have the votes to pass the bill, a secondary goal has been to attract Republican lawmakers so the bill doesn’t come off as driven by a partisan agenda.
Carlbom urged House and Senate gay marriage supporters to accept the GOP changes. Pending House approval, the Senate will hold its vote on Monday, leaders said.
Two key House Democrats – Rep. Karen Clark, the House sponsor of the bill, and Majority Leader Erin Murphy – said they also support the amendment offered by FitzSimmons.
Clark assured gay marriage supporters that the language wouldn’t undermine their goal by making it a lesser standard.
“It’s not civil unions by any means,” she said.
What wasn’t immediately clear was whether the gay marriage bill would net Republican votes if the amendment passes. So far, no House Republicans have committed to voting for the bill. Some reiterated their opposition, and one uncommitted lawmaker, Rep. Jenifer Loon of Eden Prairie, declined comment.
Sen. Branden Petersen of Andover is the lone Republican on record supporting the bill. He said the FitzSimmons amendment was crafted to win a few more votes from his side of the aisle.
“I think it’s absolutely going to bring a few more of our folks on,” Petersen said, predicting that in the end four to six Republicans between the House and Senate would vote for g ay marriage.
FitzSimmons, a freshman with a libertarian reputation, declined to say how he would vote on the final bill. He said he knows its passage isn’t in doubt, which is why he felt strongly about fortifying the religious protections.
FitzSimmons said the definition he proposed is meant to emphasize the difference between government-recognized marriage and the rite performed in churches and synagogues.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has vowed to sign the bill, which would allow gay marriages to start happening on Aug. 1.
Speaking Wednesday to reporters, Dayton underscored the magnitude of the coming votes.
“It is one of those society-changing breakthrough moments,” Dayton said. “The enormity of this can’t be overstated.”
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