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Minn. House somber, emotional in gay marriage debate tonight

ST. PAUL -- Voices broke with emotion tonight as Minnesota representatives engaged a quiet and serious debate over gay marriage.

"We are going to plunge Minnesota in a deeply divisive fight over who and how we love," Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said about the proposed constitutional amendment they considered well into the night.

The somber, quiet debate contrasted sharply with chanting and sign waving that dominated the hallways outside the House chamber for than two days. Hundreds who gathered in the Capitol on both sides of the issue became silent as discussion began at 6:23 p.m. today, watching televisions showing the debate.

Bill sponsor Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, said his proposed state constitutional amendment would "change nothing" because state law already defines marriage as between a man and a woman, just like the proposed constitutional change.

But, Gottwalt said, it is such an important concept that it should be enshrined in the Constitution instead of leaving the decision up to politicians and judges.

"This allows the people of Minnesota to decide if the definition of marriage should be placed permanently in the state Constitution," Gottwalt said.

Senators passed the proposed amendment earlier. Constitutional amendments go directly to voters once passed by the House and Senate. In this case, the public vote would be in November 2012.

Murphy wanted to slow down the amendment and send it to a committee for further consideration; her attempt lost 71-61.

Debate on the proposal was unusually solemn, partially due to a Thursday morning flare-up when a youth pastor known as anti-gay delivered a controversial House prayer that led to the House speaker issuing an apology.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, told his colleagues that the amendment would "remove some personal choices and freedoms from a select few."

"If we put this amendment on the Constitution, we are taking a giant step backwards," said Kelly, who along with Rep. John Kriesel of Cottage Grove came out earlier against Gottwalt's bill.

Kelly asked Kriesel how he lost both legs.

Kriesel replied: "I was on combat patrol and we encountered an improvised explosive device. ... I chose to go to Iraq so I could defend our way of life ... and bring our way of life to an oppressed people on the other side of the world."

Kelly told fellow Republicans, most of whom oppose the amendment, that when asked during campaigns, they said they oppose gay marriage. However, Kelly added, "you didn't make promises to impose your will on other people."

One of the most emotional of many emotional speeches came from Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, who talked about her lesbian partner of 22 years and their family.

Clark and her partner have thought about getting married in Iowa, where judges overturned state law to allow gay marriage, while her 94-year-old father still can enjoy it.

"Please don't make me go off to Iowa," Clark pleaded. "I am a child of Minnesota."

Murphy said she worries that if the amendment would be on next year's ballot, there will be 18 months of divisive campaigning.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.