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

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

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.

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

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.”

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.”

Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 04/03/2013 - 05:16 pm.


    ain’t equal. It’s that simple.

    • Submitted by Susan McNerney on 04/04/2013 - 09:08 am.

      The country has moved so far on this issue

      that a proposal for “civil unions” sounds like one of those radio stations that still plays top 40 from 1993. Hopelessly outdated. The only way to “put the issue to bed” is to declare full equality and move on.

  2. Submitted by Sean Huntley on 04/03/2013 - 05:27 pm.


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

    NOW they are concerned about the budget????? Where was their focus on that last session?

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/03/2013 - 06:58 pm.


    should not be controlled by the state in any way whatsoever.
    Let’s do this right and make civil unions the ONLY status granted by the state and subject to state benefits and limitations.
    Let marriage be a status granted by non state actors (churches, individuals, whoever) that convey no legal status of any sort.

    • Submitted by Dan Bosch on 04/03/2013 - 07:27 pm.

      I second this comment

      word for word.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/03/2013 - 07:37 pm.

      One little problem with your proposal: Federal law

      As was recently pointed out in arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, there are some 1100+ laws, regulations, and programs whose eligibility and benefits rely on marital status to some extent.

      If your suggestion is about action at the state level (the discussion at hand in this column), it would do nothing about these 1100+, and would seem irrelevant to the issue, at least from any one state’s point of view.

      If you’re talking about sweeping federal action, that’s another story – and leaves quite a lot of undoing at the federal level, no?

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/04/2013 - 09:11 am.

        No one’s saying

        that this would be easy.
        We’re talking about a long term goal here.
        One issue is of course the extent to which state laws can take precedence over federal laws (a long running constitutional issue).
        Another kicker is your phrase “to some extent”. In many cases the involvement is minor enough so that a general court ruling that ‘marital status’ included ‘civil union’ would suffice.
        It is true that these problems are difficult, but they are also solvable.

    • Submitted by Tim Milner on 04/04/2013 - 09:03 am.

      I second this comment


      Marriage is a church issue, civil unions should be a state’s issue.

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 04/04/2013 - 11:16 am.

      The trouble with that approach

      Is that there are thousands of federal laws that refer to “marriage” and “married” not “those in a civil union.”

      So while I agree with the sentiment, the issue is that there is necessarily a civil law definition of “marriage” that need not be the same as the religious definitions of the same word.

      The Catholic church, for example, has been getting along just fine with a separation between those definitions (e.g., no marrying the divorced) for a long time. Why is this any different?

  4. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 04/04/2013 - 01:16 am.


    If one can support “civil unions” which according to one proponent are “virtually the same as a marriage” why can’t one simply move a little bit and support same sex marriage? Three years ago, when Republicans controlled the Minnesota House and Senate, such a proposal might have attracted a good deal of support. But in 2013, it seems pretty clear that public opinion is moving toward allowing same sex marriage.

  5. Submitted by Ian Snyder on 04/04/2013 - 02:55 am.

    What timing…

    In the middle of the amendment debate last year, DFLers and John Kriesel introduced a civil unions bill in attempt to provide some rights and protections, whatever the amendment results might be. Garofalo, Kieffer, Kelly and McNamara should have supported it then, instead of submitting it now as an attempt to block equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians.

  6. Submitted by william parkhill on 04/04/2013 - 04:35 am.

    Same Sex Marriage

    Calling a marriage a marriage or a civil union a civil union should be left up to the people as a independent right. If somebody wants to call it a “civil union” then that’s there right to do so and vise versa.

    Churches may do what they wish with regards to the matter.

    Cant affect protected classes under the human rights act

    The State need only change the marriage license form that you need to fill out to get married.

    Let the people define “what marriage is or a civil union is” for themselves.

    This would stop all the worthless debate and fighting over it and give everyone what they want.

    Just a opinion

  7. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 04/04/2013 - 07:32 am.


    The GOP legislators strike me as people who are a day late and a dollar short. This would have been a good suggestion five or even one year ago, but at this point it’s an idea that’s past its sell-by date. You would think they would look at the polls and, like so many of the other conservative colleagues, get on board and support gay marriage. Anything less than that is simply an opportunity to get left in the dustbin of history.

  8. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/04/2013 - 09:39 am.

    The problem with civil unions

    I, personally, would be happy to get a civil union bill–as long as it completely replaced marriages for all. However, one of the problems is that they are NOT virtually the same. Both state and federal laws treat them very differently. A friend of mine made the mistake of getting a civil union with her now-husband before they were married in order to take advantage of some of her employer’s benefits, like health insurance, while her then-fiance went to school. At tax time, she found out that those benefits were considered additional income and she had to pay a big chunk out of her pocket simply because he wasn’t her husband YET. Something that she won’t have to do now that they’re married.

    At this point in time, offering up civil unions is like offering to take out a patient’s appendix when they come in with a brain tumor. It just won’t cut it and is immoral to boot.

  9. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 04/04/2013 - 09:57 am.

    Once again…Leading from behind

    It’s all part of the lame Republican attempt to “remessage” without really changing any positions.

  10. Submitted by jody rooney on 04/04/2013 - 10:25 am.

    These folks don’t strike me as people who had

    much of a voice last session under the GOP reign of terror. If they have a voice this session perhaps they can now put themselves in a position to regretfully vote for same sex marriage.

  11. Submitted by Arito Moerair on 04/04/2013 - 11:13 am.

    Backdoor political move?

    I have to wonder if this is some shady backdoor political maneuver. We all know there are conservative Democrats who are fence-sitters on marriage equality. I wonder if this is a way to peel them off to the civil union side so they don’t have to find some spine and vote for equality. They could say, “Oh well, I’ll go with civil unions now that it’s available.” Or to turn them against the more progressive members as if to say, “Here’s a better, less-controversial plan for right now.”

  12. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 04/04/2013 - 11:32 am.

    Count ’em !!

    I said it before and I will say it again — count the votes! The Dems alone will not add gay marriage to Chapter 517 (our marriage statutes) and there are 29 Republicans elected from districts that voted “No” last fall. Which ones are going to take a cue from their districts’ votes and support gay marriage?

  13. Submitted by Lee Wenzel on 04/04/2013 - 11:59 am.

    Civil Unions

    I couldn’t agree more that the State should leave marriage to churches and personal commitments and deal only with civil unions for anybody who wants it. Do we really believe in the separation of church and state? Then let’s stop regulating a sacrament. Is infant baptism next up for state regulation?

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 04/04/2013 - 02:36 pm.

      It’s not regulating a sacrament

      Nothing in the law of marriage says anything about how any church approaches it as a sacrament. The meaning of the sacrament of marriage, and who may enter into it, is left entirely to the realm of religious authority.

      Which is why, for example, the Catholic church has been able to maintain a definition of marriage separate from the legal definition of marriage for decades (if not longer).

      The word simply means different thing in different contexts. That should not be hard to understand.

  14. Submitted by Sean Huntley on 04/04/2013 - 01:43 pm.

    All of the comments about government getting out of marriage all together are admirable, but the fact of the matter is that simply is not going to happen. At least not anytime soon. Since “government marriage” isn’t going anywhere the only way to rectify the equal protection violations will be to legalize gay marriage.

  15. Submitted by jody rooney on 04/04/2013 - 03:14 pm.

    Interestingly the sunday before the election

    my grandchildren were baptized in the same church I was baptized in 60 plus years ago. It is a Lutheran Church and the pastor went out oh his way to mention that this was only one of two sacraments recognized by the church, baptism and communion.

    So is it just the Catholic Church that is pushing this issue? They certainly spent a great deal of money on it last year.

    Since when does one religion get to decide?

  16. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 04/05/2013 - 08:12 am.

    I don’t need a church to get married now. I can go down to the courthouse with my intended, fill out the paperwork, wait the appropriate time, and have a justice of the peace read off some text and sign the license and voila! I’m married! No religion had anything to do with it.

    And that’s a full-out “marriage” – not a civil union. All the rights and responsibilities etc. etc. Government-bestowed benefits, and the church had nothing to do with it.

    Which leads me towards saying “Let’s get churches out of the marriage business” rather than “Let’s get government out of the marriage business”.

    One statement seems to make as much sense as the other. But the first one does a better job of respecting the separation of church and state than the second one does.

    Let’s get churches out of the marriage business, insofar as the government-bestowed rights and responsibilities are concerned. And then – after a couple – ANY couple – is married, if they then wish to additionally seek the blessing of a church that will bestow it – well, that will be their personal choice.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/06/2013 - 02:56 pm.

      I’ve said this for a long time

      “Marriage” is not a uniquely religious word. Calling it “Christian” it doesn’t make it so.

      If man and woman obtain a marriage license at the courthouse and repeat their vows before a judge, they are legally married in this and every state, with all the rights and privileges of any other married couple.

      If a man and woman skip the marriage license and just repeat their vows in front of a religious leader, they are nothing more than roommates in the eyes of the law. They have no automatic rights of inheritance, no right to make medical decisions for each other, no tax benefits, no immunity from testifying against each other in court, none of the rights that are given to a couples who have acquired a license from the state.

      If marriage were a religious institution, we would not allow civil ceremonies or require couples who want a religious ceremony to obtain marriage licenses first.

      I like the system that prevails in most Western countries. You can have a religious ceremony or not, as you choose, but you have to have a civil ceremony to make it legal. In some countries, especially in Asia, you just register as a married couple without even a civil ceremony required.

      And really, the idea that same-sex couples who get married are some how “harming” heterosexual marriage is ridiculous. That’s just one of those statements that people hear in the media and repeat mindlessly because it feels good on an emotional level. No one has ever explained the mechanism by which this harm occurs.

  17. Submitted by jody rooney on 04/05/2013 - 10:45 am.

    Hey you missed the biggest nuance in this story

    I just saw the press conference on this issue. If civil unions and marriage are both in the law as proposed by these legislators AND DOMA is struck down on the grounds that the definition of marriage is reserved to the state then Minnesota will be on record as not defining marriage and same sex couples as the same thing.

    Something that looks kind and rational then becomes something that clearly prohibits same sex couples from having equal status for things like income tax filings because Minnesota follows the federal definition for “married filing jointly”.

    Sorry folks it has to be marriage.

  18. Submitted by Donald Larsson on 04/08/2013 - 01:03 pm.

    Too Little, Too Late

    The Republicans lost their chance for “civil unions” by sabotaging them (or “domestic partner” language) every time that state employees tried to get them in their contracts, and even when supported by the state government agencies, including MnSCU. If one or more Republican houses didn’t blackball the idea right away, then Gov. Pawlenty was sure to. Now, things have moved to the point where only “marriage” as a legally-recognized union will suffice. (And no churches that want to sanction religious “marriage” would be forced to, any more than they forced to sanction interfaith marriages now. In both cases, there are also pastors who do perform interfaith marriages and same-sex marriages, with or without state sanction.)

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