ST. PAUL — Lawmakers formally launched a long-anticipated effort Wednesday to legalize gay marriage in Minnesota by summer, and gay couples and their small children crowded the kickoff news conference — an image meant to show family diversity already exists in the state.
Arguing that such families deserve the same recognition from the state as more traditional ones, sponsors of the gay marriage bill aim to repeal Minnesota's 1997 law that prohibited marriage between couples of the same sex. The bill exempts churches from being forced to perform same-sex weddings.
Sen. Scott Dibble, a Minneapolis Democrat who married his partner in California four years ago, said his bill's simple aim is: "To allow folks who so desire who have demonstrated the lifetime of love and commitment to get married, even if they are a same sex couple."
Dibble said he doesn't know if he has the votes to pass the measure in the Democratic-led Legislature.
"I think we're close. I don't know if we're there," he said.
Republican Sen. Branden Petersen, the only member of his party to sign on as a co-sponsor, was not at the news conference. But he issued a statement of support. Earlier in the week, a national group opposed to gay marriage pledged $500,000 toward the electoral defeat of GOP lawmakers who vote for the bill.
Gov. Mark Dayton says he would sign the bill if it reaches him. Weddings could commence in August.
It has been a long road for gay Minnesotans seeking the right to get married.
In 1971, the state Supreme Court ruled against gay marriage after two gay men sought a Hennepin County marriage license. In 1997, when the Legislature was under Democratic control, lawmakers strengthened that prohibition by overwhelmingly passing a "Defense of Marriage Act."
By 2004, conservative activists and their allies in the Legislature were seeking an even stricter ban on gay marriage. Michele Bachmann, then a state senator, initiated a multi-year effort to put a constitutional amendment before voters statewide that would have installed a one man-one woman definition of marriage in the state's founding document. It finally reached fruition in 2011, when Republicans in control of both legislative chambers voted the amendment onto the ballot.
That statewide vote occurred last November, after a long and expensive campaign. The constitutional ban failed by about 150,000 votes on an Election Day that saw voters in three other states vote affirmatively to allow gay marriage. Those results were widely seen as a turning point for gay marriage supporters after years of electoral setbacks.
"It was a very clear statement," said Rep. Karen Clark, the Minneapolis Democrat who is the House chief sponsor. "We are now ready to take the next step."
But the amendment's defeat left gay marriage still not allowed under existing Minnesota statute. Minnesotans United, the campaign to defeat the amendment, quickly turned its attention to a Capitol with a governor's office and Legislature controlled by Democrats — the best political landscape for the bid to legalize gay marriage that's now underway.
Gay marriage is currently legal in nine states.