A state constitution ban on same-sex marriages will go to Minnesota voters in November. But gay marriage proponents say wider acceptance of gay unions suggests prohibition may lose.
The circumstances were familiar: emotional debate, hundreds of demonstrators, and a decision by legislators to ask voters if they want to amend their state constitution to ban marriages between residents of the same gender.
This time it was Minnesota, where House members voted 70-62 Saturday night to put the proposed amendment to a statewide popular vote next year.
If it passes, the state would join 31 others that have approved similar measures.
But same-sex marriage advocates say they believe there's a good chance, given changing attitudes toward gay unions, that voters in Minnesota could become the first to reject such an amendment.
"For so long, we've had these ballot measures, and we keep losing them," says Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director at Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization. "But our hope is that Minnesota is going to turn the tide."
The reason for that optimism? A slew of recent national polls — from Gallup to CNN — have found that for the first time since pollsters started asking, a majority of Americans surveyed say they support same-sex marriage.
A recent Star Tribune Minnesota Poll also found that 55 percent of state residents surveyed said they oppose the proposed gay marriage ban amendment.
"We're in a cultural shift on this," says Michael Cole-Schwartz, also of HRC. "The polls are indicative of a larger movement."
"Party leaders realize this doesn't play like it used to," he says.
The developments in Minnesota, which has a Republican-controlled Legislature and a pro-same sex marriage Democrat in the governor's office, come as a high-stakes challenge to California's voter-approved constitutional ban on same-sex marriage wends its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Debate on the issue continues to roil state legislatures, such as in New York, where Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's agenda includes an aggressive push to legalize gay marriage.
And the Obama administration recently announced that it would no longer defend in court a federal law barring same-sex marriages.
But supporters of the Minnesota amendment say the notion of that state as a bellwether for change in same-sex marriage attitudes is hogwash.
"People doing polls want to get the results they're getting," says Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, a powerhouse behind efforts to prohibit gay marriage.
His organization commissioned a poll in Minnesota, where state law already defines marriage as between a man and a woman, that found that 57 percent of those surveyed opposed same-sex marriage.
The poll was conducted by Gary Lawrence, a Mormon writer and pollster who has been closely involved in anti-gay marriage efforts in California that have been heavily funded by Mormons.
Brown asserts that other polls routinely understate support for bans on same-sex marriage by an average of 6 percentage points.
"In Minnesota, they'll do what 31 other states have done — vote for traditional marriage," Brown says. "We've been working with the state groups, just as we did in Maine and California, and we will financially support the effort."
In New York, his organization has pledged to commit $1 million to mount a primary challenge against, he says, "any Republican who votes to redefine marriage."
"I don't think you're going to see New York redefine marriage," he says.
In Minnesota, amendment proponents also expect support from the Catholic Church and from the national organization Focus on the Family, whose affiliate, the Minnesota Family Council, was the driving force behind the amendment effort.
"We feel there is strong support for marriage in Minnesota," says Tom Prichard, the council's president. "We also see this as an opportunity to have a discussion and a debate on the issue of marriage."
But the debate has already shown signs of getting ugly.
The Minnesota Family Council's website has posted inflammatory material linking homosexuality with bestiality and "other deviant behaviors," including pedophilia.
Prichard defends the postings as getting "into the nature of homosexuality and homosexual behavior," but says that won't be the focus of his group's efforts to pass the constitutional ban.
"The focus of this campaign is the nature and purpose of marriage — not a referendum of homosexuality per se, or its lifestyle activities and behaviors," he says. "I would see that as a separate issue."
Monica Meyer, executive director of Out Front Minnesota, a nearly 25-year-old gay rights organization, says activists knew based on campaign promises of the incoming GOP-controlled Legislature that the constitutional ban would be an issue.
In the past, she said, similar amendments were proposed, usually by former state Sen. Michele Bachmann, who is now serving in Congress and weighing a presidential bid.
"It was really disheartening to have the amendment measure pass," Meyer says. "We are seeing so much support for LBGT equality."
"We've got this $6 billion deficit here, and leadership says they want to work to improve the economy, and this is the only issue they get done," she says. "It's a sad statement for our state."
Many editorial writers, including Kevin Sweeney, editor of The Journal in New Ulm, Minn., cautioned the Legislature against endorsing a constitutional amendment effort.
Some argued that the proposed ban promoted bigotry, and Sweeney made a case against using constitutional amendments to "squash the political process and institutionalize one party's political ideas."
Sweeney says there are two questions before Minnesotans.
"Should marriage be between a man and a woman — and I think most people would say yes," he says. "And there's the question of whether the state needs to amend its constitution."
He argues that legislating by amendment "is not a good idea — it gets messy."
Voters Will Decide
Brown asserts that gay activists should not be afraid of the ballot box next November if they are convinced they have the support to block the amendment.
Minnesota historically leads the country in voter turnout — in the 2008 presidential election year, 77.8 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls. And with the White House up for grabs next year, as well as a U.S. Senate seat and the entire state Legislature, turnout is expected to remain in the stratosphere.
"It's a really, really big election year in 2012," says Meyer, of Out Front Minnesota.
And advocates on both sides are convinced that works in their favor.
"I do think times are changing, and we in Minnesota should be able to defeat this amendment," Meyer says.
Says Brown: "The only poll that counts is what happens in the ballot box, and we've never lost."