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After a passionate debate Thursday that stretched over three hours, the Minnesota house voted 77-56 to put a gay marriage ban before voters next year. The bill would ask voters to amend the state constitution to define marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman. Supporters of the constitutional amendment said it would prevent courts from allowing same-sex marriages, even though state law already prohibits them. "The only way to ensure that activist judges don't circumvent the will of the people is by allowing the people of Minnesota to have their voices heard," said Rep. Dan Severson, a Republican from Sauk Rapids, the bill's sponsor. "That definition may stand in our books." Sixty-four of the 68 house Republicans voted for the ban, which also picked up the votes of 13 Democrats. Three Republicans voted against it, and one was absent. Democrats who opposed the ban said it would trample the civil rights of a minority without helping troubled heterosexual couples. They criticized the bill for diverting attention from pressing problems facing schools, the health care system, and the economy. "What single heterosexual marriage that exists today will be saved by the passage of this amendment?" asked Democratic representative Keith Ellison of Minneapolis. "Nobody thinking about getting divorced today will change their mind based on this amendment." An attempt to remove same-sex civil unions and domestic partnerships from the constitutional amendment was defeated. Democratic representative Karen Clark said the ban on gay civil unions would threaten health benefits and legal rights now extended to same-sex partners. "These words harm people," said Clark, a lesbian. "The people of Minnesota have a right to know that you would take away basic benefits from us." The house vote--not quite as lopsided as last year's 88-42 vote--means the effort to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions is halfway to the ballot. All that's needed now is approval from the Democrat-controlled senate, which never voted on the issue last year. Earlier this year senate majority leader Dean Johnson warned Republicans that if they push for a gay-marriage vote this session, they'll also have to vote on constitutional amendments on universal health insurance, environmental protections, and a ban on state-run casinos. "The real challenge this year will be the Minnesota senate," said Gary Borgendale, who works for Minnesota for Marriage and held a sign reading "Defend Marriage" outside house chambers. Minnesota already has the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, requiring marriages to be between members of the opposite sex and preventing the state from recognizing same-sex unions granted by other states. Backers of the constitutional amendment say they need a stronger measure to cement the definition of marriage, lest judges should decide to allow gay unions. Legislators can change laws easily from year to year, but amending the constitution is more difficult and requires direct approval from voters. Constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage have been proposed in 18 states, after voters approved them in about a dozen states last November. Marriage amendments will be on ballots in Kansas next week and in Alabama, South Dakota, and Tennessee next year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.