‘Love Is the Law’

How Anti-Gay Forces Helped Minnesota Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

A bid to legalize discrimination backfired—and emboldened equality activists, says state Rep. Karen Clark.

This week, Minnesota became the 12th state, plus the District of Columbia, to allow same-sex couples to marry.

During the final debate on the legislation in the Minnesota House, I shared a photo with my colleagues that had been taken at the 1993 gay pride parade in Minneapolis. Pictured there were me and my partner of 24 years, Jacquelyn, standing next to my parents, Millie and Joe Clark, who were carrying a sign that read: “Our Gay Children Should Have the Same Rights as Our Heterosexual Children.”

They’d marched with the Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays contingent to celebrate the historic passage, a month earlier, of the strongest state civil-rights protection for LGBT citizens in the country. Though my parents did not live to see it, 20 years later their message rang true and helped me to pass the Freedom to Marry Act.

It was a long, arduous, and inspiring journey that allowed Minnesota’s elected leaders to pass an equal-marriage law. The 75-59 House vote took more than three hours of discussion and debate, including the adoption of three amendments to clarify exemptions for religious organizations and numerous emotional and moving personal statements from legislators, some of whom noted that their vote may endanger their reelection. Over and over the sentiment was expressed that this was “the right thing to do.”

Significantly, the triumph followed last fall’s rejection of an amendment to the state constitution, forced through by Republicans, that would have banned same-sex marriage. That ballot measure stated: “Marriage is only between one man and one woman”—language that already existed in state law. It was defeated by 52.6 percent of voters, making Minnesota the first state to reject such an effort. In the end, it helped to overturn Republican control of both houses of the state legislature, and firmed up resolve to fight for marriage equality in Minnesota this year.

The campaign to defeat the amendment was a bipartisan, well-funded, and brilliantly orchestrated. For nearly two years, Minnesotans United for All Families organized volunteers whose main strategy was to have thousands of personal conversations between Minnesotans about marriage—what it meant and what it did not mean. Its message: marriage is about love and commitment, about two adults who love each other, make families together, and accept the responsibilities and privileges that come with it. While fairness and basic civil rights were part of the discussion, the emphasis was on the loving commitment that’s the basis for all our families—gay and straight—and that we should not inject discrimination into the Minnesota State Constitution. Co-workers, elected officials, and everyday citizens “came out” to their families and friends in amazing numbers and in every region of Minnesota during that campaign and in the months that followed.

Following the amendment’s defeat and the statehouse turnover, newly elected Democratic majorities took a hard look at our opportunity to pass a marriage-equality law, bolstered by strong support from Gov. Mark Dayton. We were able to build on the momentum and within several months it became clear that we were getting close to having the votes needed. Supportive testimony had come from business, labor, families, and even a former legislator who regretted her vote against same-sex marriage years ago. With the help of this newly engaged citizenry, we gained bipartisan support that became even stronger in the final vote when we added amendments to strengthen religious exemptions and clarify that Minnesota law addresses civil marriage, not religious marriage.

The House vote was followed three days later by a vote in the Senate, led by Scott Dibble, an openly gay senator. It passed on a bipartisan vote of 37 to 30. Jubilant crowds filled the Capitol rotunda and thunderous applause greeted us everywhere as we emerged from the vote.

On May 13, 7,000 Minnesotans came to watch Gov. Dayton sign the legislation into law on the Capitol steps. As he declared: Love is the law!

Millie and Joe Clark would have been so proud.