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Civil unions: It looks like an uphill fight for compromise idea

Republicans who back the civil-union plan said they would vote against gay-marriage legislation pushed by Democrats.

Civil-union plan supporters from left: Rep. Pat Garofalo, Rep. Andrea Kieffer, Rep. Tim Kelly and Rep. Denny McNamara.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

A group of Republican lawmakers on Wednesday outlined a civil-union alternative to the controversial gay-marriage legislation cooking at the Capitol this session, but it’s unclear whether the compromise measure has enough support to get very far.

Republicans who back the civil-union plan – four lawmakers outlined the proposal in front of reporters on Wednesday – said they would vote against gay-marriage legislation pushed by Democrats in control of the Legislature. They said the union measure would end Minnesota’s divisive marriage debate and refocus lawmakers on tackling important economic issues.

“This puts the social issues to bed,” GOP Rep. Denny McNamara said. “Let’s get back on the budget. … Let’s move on.”

The proposal lacked the fanfare and emotion that gay-marriage supporters brought to the Capitol in support of securing what they view as equal treatment under the law. But the hardnosed opposition that gay-marriage foes brought to bear on the legislation remained absent as well.

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GOP Rep. Tim Kelly, who outlined the somewhat bipartisan alternative, said government shouldn’t be involved in defining marriage, casting the controversial debate as an individual liberty issue.

“We are here to offer a way to unite Minnesota and to bring forth a bill that will take the divisive social issues away from the political arena and give everyone the individual rights that they deserve,” the Republican from Red Wing said, outlining the legislation.

Kelly’s language toward some sort of same-sex marriage compromise reflects a small, but growing, trend among Republicans who say that government should stay out of personal issues like marriage. GOP Sen. Branden Petersen and former State Auditor Pat Anderson have come out in favor of gay marriage using similar arguments.

But it’s unclear if this civil-union proposal has the support to move forward in the House. Kelly said a Senate counterpart is coming, but didn’t say who would sponsor the bill there.

It appears that the small group of lawmakers behind the civil-union bill – GOP Reps. Tim Kelly, Pat Garofalo, Andrea Kieffer and Mary Franson and DFL Rep. Kim Norton – lack the support that “marriage equality” proponents have amassed.

Civil-union backers may also face opposition from same-sex marriage opponents like Minnesota for Marriage, spokeswoman Autumn Leva told reporters after the press conference.

The group, one of the main organizers for the marriage amendment, is reserving judgment on the measure until after members have had a chance to examine the bill. Leva said Minnesota for Marriage is concerned conscientious objectors’ civil liberties could be infringed if lawmakers pass a civil-union bill. 

“Minnesota for Marriage as an institution is committed to protecting the definition of marriage,” she said. “If this law as it’s interpreted would in any way undermine our state’s marriage law, we’d absolutely be opposed.”

Condemned by MN United

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Minnesotans United for All Families, the amendment campaign-turned-lobbying effort, condemned the proposal shortly after it was released. They remain squarely behind the gay-marriage legislation that has so far moved through the Legislature.

The same-sex marriage legislation passed through a committee in both the House and Senate and now waits in limbo for legislative leaders to bring it up for a floor vote.

DFL leaders say they’re waiting to move on social issues until significant progress on the state’s budget has been made, which could mean the measures sit untouched until late April.

Certain legislative deadlines have passed, which means that Kelly and other civil-union supporters would have to get special permission for their bill to get a hearing in the House.

Kelly to request hearing

Kelly said he would request a hearing from Rep. John Lesch, who chairs the House Civil Law Committee. That committee passed the gay-marriage bill along party lines last month.

Lesch called the civil-union legislation a “cheap copy” of the existing same-sex marriage bill. He said he hasn’t decided if he will give Kelly’s measure a hearing.

It’s likely that civil union supporters will attempt to attach Kelly’s measure to the existing same-sex marriage bill on the House floor.

Rep. Tim Kelly
MinnPost photo by James NordRep. Tim Kelly: “We are here to offer a way to unite Minnesota and to bring forth a bill that will take the divisive social issues away from the political arena and give everyone the individual rights that they deserve.”

“Civil unions at this point are a day late and a dollar short,” Lesch told MinnPost. “The movement of the people of Minnesota is definitely toward marriage equality, and we didn’t start this. [Republicans] did. So it’s inevitable that because they opened the door to this, they’re going to have to deal with full equality being the question on the table.”

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House Speaker Paul Thissen also released a statement blasting the civil-union proposal. Thissen and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk have so far been reticent to discuss same-sex marriage legislation’s chances of passing this session.

“The bill announced today is an idea whose time has passed and would simply create a new separate and unequal category for same-sex couples in our state,” Thissen said in the statement.

“That is not acceptable to those — like me — who support full marriage equality for all Minnesotans, and it will not have broad support in the Minnesota House of Representatives.”