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An antigay marriage ballot measure approved over the weekend by Minnesota state lawmakers is already setting the stage for a deeply divisive campaign of national importance.
On Saturday, the Minnesota house voted 70 to 62 in favor of the bill, which allows voters in 2012 to decide whether to adopt a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality. The vote came after hours of debate and days of impassioned Capitol rallies on both sides of the debate.
Gov. Mark Dayton does not have the authority to veto the bill but has said he will lobby to defeat the amendment.
National LGBT groups were quick to condemn the house vote, with Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese calling it an "appalling" blow to the state's gay families. "We are confident, however, that when November 2012 arrives, Minnesotans will reject these divisive tactics," Solmonese said in a statement.
Anti-marriage equality forces cheered the vote as a key victory. Minnesota Family Council president Tom Prichard, who has lobbied against gay marriage and in the past has denounced anti-bullying school policies as "just a pretext for reeducating students about beliefs on homosexuality," attempted to strike an air of civility when discussing his group's upcoming antigay campaign. "[O]ur goal is to not make it personal," Prichard told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "I think we can have a respectful discussion and conversation on the importance of marriage in our state, where there's widespread support that the best environment to raise children is with a loving mother and father."
Though extensive polling does not yet exist, a May 13 survey by the Star Tribune did not find "widespread support" for a constitutional amendment: 55% of respondents opposed the antigay initiative and 39% approved. But it's unclear how a likely multimillion-dollar campaign waged by both sides of the debate will ultimately sway voters.
Whether such an amendment could survive a court challenge if it were passed is also unknown. Though a federal district judge struck down California's Proposition 8 amendment last year, there are key differences between the two states. For one, California had already allowed gay couples to marry prior to Prop. 8's passage: approximately 18,000 same-sex couples remain married in the state, creating what some marriage equality supporters have dubbed a "crazy quilt" of those who can and cannot get legally married.
Minnesota, which has a statute prohibiting gay marriage, has never allowed gay couples to marry. In 1972, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in the case Baker v. Nelson that state law prohibits same-sex marriage (the U.S. Supreme Court later dismissed an appeal in the case "for want of a substantial federal question").
Other states could follow suit in bringing anti-marriage equality amendments to the ballot in 2012. In North Carolina, about 3,500 protesters rallied in support last week for adding an amendment to the state's constitution. A proposed amendment would need to pass the state house and senate by a three-fifths majority in order to be placed on the ballot next year.
"We've been fighting for this for a long time," Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a Republican representing Burke and McDowell counties, told the Raleigh News & Observer last week. "I fully expect it to pass this year and I expect a large bipartisan vote on it."
During a press conference in Washington, D.C. with reporters last week, Chad Griffin, cofounder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which waged the Prop. 8 legal battle, said his organization would be ready and willing to fight another court battle against an antigay ballot measure.
In Minnesota, Donald McFarland of Minnesotans United for All Families, a new multi-group pro-marriage campaign that includes OutFront Minnesota and Project 515, said his organization is ready for the upcoming fight. "Our campaign is hitting the ground running and we plan on using every resource available to defeat this anti-family constitutional amendment," McFarland told the Star Tribune.