One of Michele Bachmann's political goals might be close to realization. No, not election to the presidency (yet). Recently the Minnesota House passed a bill that will allow voters to cast their ballot for an amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage in Minnesota. The legislation was first proposed by Bachmann as a state senator in 2003. It now stands as a major test for both social conservatives and gay rights activists in the debate over same-sex marriage.
For decades, the state of Minnesota has defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The state supreme court has even upheld this traditional definition. But supporters of the proposed amendment say an explicit prohibition of same-sex marriage needs to be written into the constitution to prevent it from being imposed by either judges or lawmakers down the road.
Predictably, the bill has sparked a heated political confrontation. After a nearly six-hour debate, two DFL (Democrat) legislators voted for the bill and four Republicans voted against the bill, which will appear as a referendum on the November 2012 ballot. Though the bill passed 70-62, a May 13 Minneapolis Star Tribune poll asked people if they "would favor or oppose… amending the Minnesota Constitution to ban same-sex marriage." Fifty-five percent answered "oppose." Conservative Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten blames the outcome of the poll on the negative language; the actual ballot language uses more positive terms: "Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota."
Already, several groups like OutFront Minnesota and Minnesotans United For All Families are gearing up for an 18-month long campaign to ensure the Minnesotans vote "no" on the amendment. Local and national organizations are predicting millions of dollars will be spent to sway voters either way. Tom Pritchard of the Minnesota Family Council believes organizations like his will have to roll up their sleeves to guarantee the amendment passes, but he's optimistic it will.
While lawmakers hope for a civil debate among Minnesotans for the next several months, that might already be wishful thinking. Bradlee Dean, a local radio-show host and preacher who has made anti-gay comments in the past, opened the day before the vote's session in prayer in the house chamber and questioned President Obama's faith. That comment, coupled with his previous statements regarding gays, incited an immediate uproar. The speaker of the house, Kurt Zellers, expunged Dean's prayer from the record and released a statement apologizing for Dean's presence.
Though Bachmann has represented Minnesota in Congress since 2006, she didn't hesitate to show excitement over the bill's pending passage. Before it passed in the house, she Tweeted: "As a MN state senator I introduced a constitutional marriage amendment; 8 years later it's finally coming up for a vote." Bachmann's involvement was no doubt critical in its initiation, but the passage of the bill is due largely to the new Republican majority in the legislature.
Still, not every Republican was on board. One of the two Republicans to break with his party and oppose the marriage bill was Rep. John Kriesel, an Iraq war veteran, young lawmaker, and family man. In his five-minute speech declaring why he would "Press the hell no button, if there was one," Kriesel said equality took precedence over party. He told the story of a fellow veteran who died this year in Afghanistan and who was gay. He couldn't fathom telling this person's family their loved one was good enough to fight for his country but wasn't "good enough to marry the person [he] loved." Stories like that are at the root of the gay marriage debate. No doubt they will abound as the vote draws near.
Indeed, the outcome of the vote could serve as a temperature gauge for the country's opinion on social issues. Though fiscal issues will probably trump debate over social ones next fall, the nation still remains divided on gay marriage. A recent Gallup poll found 53% -- the first time the majority of Americans -- support gay marriage. Yet 31 states (including California) have amendments to their constitution like the one Minnesotans will vote on next cycle. While legal in five states (including Iowa), gay marriage has never been approved by popular vote. (Or has been rejected by the voters everywhere it has been put on the ballot.)
Time will tell how Minnesotans feel about a constitutional amendment over such a controversial issue. For now, credit is due to Bachmann, but to especially the Republican (and few Democrat) legislators responsible for giving the people of Minnesota the chance to voice their opinion on the matter once and for all.