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Is it all about the word ‘marriage’?

A slight plurality say no to same-sex marriage, a huge majority say yes to civil unions

The years have taught me not to overreact to poll results, especially when they are based on novel questions with wording that hasn’t been used over many years.

But if we take seriously two poll results reported in Sunday’s Strib, a huge majority of Minnesotans believe that same-sex couples should have all the same legal rights and responsibilities of opposite-sex married couples, as long as the same-sex version of marriage is called something other than “marriage.”

For the big pre-election poll, the Strib used language directly from the question that will be on the ballot in November: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?” That language was, of course, based on a lot of research and experience in other states about how to get people, who would feel differently if they were asked whether they want to ban same-sex marriage, to vote yes.

Strib poll result: Yes, 49%; No 47%; undecided 4%.

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Caveat #1: As you know (but I’ll just remind you one more time) if the result turned out that way on Nov. 6 and the undecideds left the question blank, the amendment would fail, since a constitutional amendment is rejected unless a majority of all those who show up at the polls vote yes.

Caveat #2: Around the country over recent years, when same-sex marriage has been on the ballot, the anti-marriage-equality side has often outperformed the polls.

Caveat #3: The result either way will have no immediate effect on the legal status of same-sex couples in Minnesota. Same-sex marriage is already illegal in Minnesota. If the amendment is approved, it will simply put the existing law into the state Constitution, making it harder for future generations to change it (since it will require another constitutional amendment) and making it less likely that a state court could strike down the existing law on some version of “equal protection” grounds.

But the interesting thing about the Strib poll was the follow-up question: “If same-sex couples are not allowed to marry, do you support or oppose allowing civil unions that would grant the same legal status as marriage?”

Result: Support: 68 percent; Oppose 23%; Not sure 9%; among Dems 79-11 in favor; among Repubs 55-34 in favor.

So, if we take the poll as accurately reflecting the sentiment of Minnesota voters, an overwhelming majority believe that there should be no substantial legal distinction between the rights and responsibilities of same-sex and opposite-sex couples, but a bare plurality want to maintain a semantic distinction.

In the Strib piece, the poster child for this attitude is 78-year-old retiree Norbert Timm of Minnetonka, who will vote “yes” on the amendment but would also supports full legal equality (except for the use of the M-word) for same sex couples. Said Timm: “Marriage has been marriage for many thousands of years. To change it now to make it into something else, you’d have to be a radical idiot… [but] “civil unions are just another legal thing, that is not trying to change people’s religion or the character of the world.”

So, apparently, a huge majority of Minnesotans favor substantive legal equality for same-sex couples, but a bare plurality may oppose semantic equality.