The deep roots of the marriage debate


by Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio
October 25, 2012

Minnesotans are involved in a passionate debate about marriage this election season. The two sides began squaring off more than 40 years ago. This project draws from MPR's extensive audio archive to explore the origins of this election day showdown over same-sex marriage.

Explore the timeline below or read the transcript. Click to view a full-size timeline »

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DEEP ROOTS

Minnesotans are involved in a passionate debate about marriage this election season. In less than two weeks, voters will decide whether to add a definition to the state constitution that marriage is only between a man and a woman. That reinforces current state law, and supporters of the amendment say it would ensure that judges or future legislatures couldn't legalize same-sex marriage. Opponents of the amendment say it would write discrimination against gays and lesbians into the constitution.

BAKER AND MCCONNELL SET THE STAGE

Same-sex marriage is not a new issue in Minnesota. The two sides began squaring off more than 40 years ago. On May 18, 1970, two Minneapolis men made a shocking request. They applied for a marriage license. Jack Baker was a law student at the University of Minnesota. Mike McConnell was a librarian working at the U. The men had been a couple since meeting in Oklahoma a few years before.

At the time, Minnesota's marriage laws didn't mention gender, but Hennepin County rejected their request. Baker and McConnell sued Hennepin County District Court clerk Gerald Nelson, and lost. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled against them as well. The 1971 ruling in Baker v. Nelson set the precedent against same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

"This was the first time that a state Supreme Court anywhere in the country had ruled on the question of whether there was a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry," said Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law professor at the University of Minnesota.  He knows the Baker case well.

Baker and McConnell appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court declined to hear the case "for want of a substantial federal question."

"So it was a significant precedent," said Carpenter. "A setback in a way, but an advance in another way: it's a way of winning by losing.  You draw attention to the issue, you make it known that there are couples who wish to be married and you do that at a time when many states still have sodomy laws and have no civil rights protections. So it was a bold move."

Minnesota also had a sodomy law prohibiting oral and anal sex, even between married couples, until 2001, when a state court threw out the law.

As for Baker and McConnell's same-sex marriage gambit, for 33 years, no court anywhere in the country would uphold a right to same-sex marriage. But Baker and McConnell had launched a potent idea into the culture. It's still reverberating.  . 42 years after it declined to hear the Baker case, the U.S. Supreme Court heard two high-profile cases involving same-sex marriage in March. Rulings are expected in late June. Baker and McConnell, who are still a couple, don't do interviews anymore. McConnell responded in an email, "our time on the public stage is past." They play a quieter role now, and say they consider their place in the history of the gay rights movement, "a sacred trust."

Back then, Baker and McConnell's bold challenge -- full marriage equality, no exceptions -- would land them on the pages of Look Magazine for a cover story on the American family, and before microphones and television cameras across the country. It captured attention in Minnesota too.

"It surely did.  It made the papers big time," said Ed Flahavan, a Catholic priest in Minneapolis. Flahavan was shocked at the time by the idea of two men marrying. "Oh, I was disgusted by it. I just thought this is crazy. Of course marriage is between one man and one woman. Gay sex? Oh my Lord," said Flahavan.  Flahavan, like others, has had a change of heart since then.  But in 1970, homosexuality was a troubling idea for a lot of people. And in the Catholic Church, it was a sin.

After striking out in the courts, Jack Baker, who wanted to marry his partner, found a new arena to take his fight: the 1972 DFL State Party Convention. The convention took place in Rochester, and was dominated by young George McGovern supporters who ratified a platform to end the war in Vietnam and legalize marijuana. As Dulcie Lawrence reported in this 1972 story from the MPR archives, that wasn't all they wanted to shake up.

"Another surprise was the adoption of a plank guaranteeing homosexuals full civil rights. Leader of the gay caucus, Jack Baker said its goals are almost identical to those of the women's caucus," Lawrence reported.

"We're talking about a contract between two individuals and a respect and dignity under the law and we demand that the state recognize our relationships as equal to any other relationships," Baker said. "The gay caucus ... it's a one-issue caucus. Just as soon as gay liberation becomes less of a controversial issue throughout the country, or as far as I'm concerned, Minnesota, it will cease to exist."

DFL party leaders disavowed the radical platform, and later raised the threshold of votes needed to pass party planks.

A FRINGE IDEA IN THE 1970s GAY COMMUNITY

The idea of two men or two women marrying each other was a fringe idea even in the gay community in the early seventies.

DFL state Sen. Allan Spear, who would become Minnesota's first openly-gay lawmaker just a few years later, wasn't a fan of what Baker and McConnell were pushing for. Spear died in 2008, but in this oral history at the Minnesota History Center recorded in 1993, Spear talked about Baker and McConnell's quest for marriage.

"That was not an issue that most of the rest of us -- I mean not that any of us were against it -- but that it wasn't the issue that most of the rest of us saw as a front burner issue," said Spear. "It struck most of us -- and still today -- it's one of the most, it's a very difficult issue and it's much harder to sell."

Spear's front burner wasn't same-sex marriage. It was trying to add human rights protections for gays and lesbians so they couldn't be fired from their jobs or denied housing because of their sexual orientation.

In this 1974 tape from the MPR archives, Spear introduced the Minnesota Committee for Gay Rights.

"And what we're attempting to do is to create a broad-based movement for gay rights in Minnesota," Spear said. "There have some very effective gay rights groups in the state up to now. What we would like to do is to broaden the base behind gay rights in the state. We'd like to bring gay rights into the mainstream of the human rights movement."

There would be little talk of gay marriage in Minnesota for another two decades as Spear and other lawmakers tried to extend human rights protections for gays and lesbians statewide. For the next twenty years, gay rights advocates, and their religiously-based opponents would build their forces, gearing up for that battle that's in full-force today over legalizing same sex marriage.

In the early 70s, as Allan Spear was lining up support for gay rights in the legislature, he hit a roadblock: John Markert, the lobbyist for the Minnesota Catholic conference, the political arm of the Catholic Church. In 1975, Markert testified against including gays and lesbians in the human rights bill.

"The normalization of homosexuality would have a comparable effect on persons who are homosexuals or have homosexual tendencies. Failing to recognize their condition as being abnormal, but rather as being normal and acceptable, they would either fail to take prudent steps to avoid or cure their unnatural behavior or even make the active positive choice to adopt homosexuality as their selected lifestyle," Markert testified. "In addition, it would encourage many persons who have  no predominant homosexual inclinations to consider it as an optional normal lifestyle."

Back in 1975, the lobbyist for the Minnesota Catholic Conference was sounding the alarm about the advance of gay rights. In 2012, the Minnesota Catholic Conference's top political priority was passing the marriage amendment, to block gay marriage.
     
In the mid-70s, the lobbyist for the Catholic Conference wasn't the only one growing concerned about Spear's mission.

"There were many, many women from various churches that were aware that things were changing in the legislature," said Roberta Brown, an evangelical Christian wife and mother who was part of a prayer group that paid attention to policy.

"We were meeting once a month just for prayer," said Brown, now 93 and living in Roseville. "What can we do and bring Godly wisdom to our leaders?"

Brown and other evangelical Christian and Catholic women who shared her views were deeply concerned about the promotion of gay rights at the legislature. Brown said they were not trying to be anti-anybody. They wanted to restore America to its Christian values.

"Our creator is our absolute truth and we believe that there is an enemy who would like to hurt the creator and has blinded people to the thing that would bless their lives," said Brown. "And our job is the more we would oppose, the more we drive them deeper into this blindness. God loves them dearly and we need to pray for wisdom to have words that help them to see what they're missing."

Brown and her late husband, Wendell, who was an insurance agent, and their pastor, Morris Vaagenes of North Heights Lutheran Church in Roseville, would go on to found one of the most powerful groups currently involved in the marriage debate. It's now called the Minnesota Family Council.

In the mid-70s, Brown and others wrote letters to  lawmakers, and alerted their communities to what they were seeing. And as this 1977 report from MPR's Debbie Gage shows, they stopped Minnesota's nascent gay rights movement in its tracks. It would be the first show of strength in a movement that would eventually have enough political firepower to put the marriage amendment on the 2012 ballot.

"Spear said the bill was the subject of a vicious lobbying campaign from so-called Christian groups," Gage reported.

"And I would still believe that Christianity -- that the broad message of Christianity -- has not been represented by the people that have been calling you, the small-minded bigoted people who have been calling you over the last few days. Many of you have come to me and said 'I'm with you in my heart, but I can't take this pressure anymore," Spear said. "Well, I can understand that, but I have to say in all frankness that I can't admire it. The bottom line in this job is having the courage and having the guts to stand up for what you believe. I know very well if there were  a secret ballot on this issue, this bill would pass overwhelmingly. But bottom line is what's up there on that board, and many of you have not been able to show the courage to stand up for your convictions and to what you believe in.

Gage reported that several other lawmakers were offended at Spear's remarks.

"This morning, I regretted the fact of being called a bigot," said DFL Senator Mike Menning, who had given an emotional speech against the bill the night before. "I regretted the fact that every Christian who calls themselves Christians here are called a bigot. I think that's sad. I think we've truly seen a sad day in the Minnesota State Legislature."

In that same legislative session in 1977, lawmakers added the phrase "between a man and a woman" to the legal definition of marriage. Marriage between a man and a woman was now backed by a State Supreme Court ruling and written into statute.

It would be sixteen years before Spear would succeed in adding "sexual orientation" to the state human rights law. That would come in 1993.

After Spear was blocked back in 1977, opponents of gay rights picked up momentum. St. Paul would be the first place in Minnesota where gay rights would be put to a popular vote. Elections are dangerous ground for gays and lesbians, who make up a small percentage of the population.

St. Paul would get its first vote in 1978. The capitol city, like Minneapolis, had extended human rights protections to gays and lesbians in 1974. Four years later, opponents put a referendum on the ballot to repeal it.

Reporter Pat Kessler covered the story for MPR in the spring of 1978.

"St. Paul was the scene of demonstrations, rallies and a major media blitz leading up to a vote that energized St. Paul politics as no other issue had done in recent years. Voters were asked to decide whether homosexuals had the same civil rights as other citizens," reported Kessler.

Gay rights advocates put together a coalition of allies that even included Catholic Archbishop John Roach. Roach died in 2003.

Ed Flahavan, the former priest who worked for him, says Roach was certainly no proponent of homosexuality, but he saw the repeal effort as discriminatory.

"He came to a position where he wanted to be on record in a pastoral way about the dignity of all people, including gays and lesbians, and it was one of these kinds of statements when it was in print, that it could be read either way. To people watching this thing closely, it was apparent to me and I think anybody looking under the surface, that it was his way of saying, 'You can be Catholic and vote against this repeal action," said Flahavan.

The Catholic Church's position that homosexual acts are a sin hasn't changed. But Archbishops, and Rome for that matter, have enforced the matter with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Today, Archbishop Roach's successor, John Nienstedt, has made protecting marriage between a man and a woman his top political priority.

Back in 1978, gay rights opponents wanted to get rid of protections they thought condoned a "lifestyle choice" they didn't agree with.

Singer Anita Bryant and her group Save Our Children had just succeeded with a similar repeal in Dade County, Florida. She made plans to take her campaign to St. Paul.

Jack Baker, the man who had tried to marry his partner eight years earlier, was primed for the fight.

"We welcome that kind of intervention," said Baker. "We think it would be a nice contest here if they would, if Anita Bryant would bring her case here and attempt to repeal any of the ordinances. It would add an entirely new dimension to the gay movement. It would help to further unify us and we think we could withstand any challenge that she would make to any of the local gay rights ordinances."

Baker was stunningly wrong. In April of 1978, St. Paul voted to repeal human rights protections for gay people by a two-to-one margin. Richard Angwin, a local Baptist preacher who led the group "Citizens Alert for Morality", told MPR News at the time he was harassed after winning the repeal.

"I've learned to live with terror. We've had a lot of threats by the phone," said Angwin. "Last week my car, they took a chain to my car and beat the car up pretty bad. Our building's been painted swastikas on it. I've been called a bigot.  One call in the middle of the night said, 'We lost, but we haven't lost, and we're going to get you some place, somewhere but we will."     

Angwin said the 1978 repeal was a life-changing battle for everyone who got involved in it.

Twelve years after the repeal, the St. Paul City Council passed a new ordinance forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 1991, there was another effort to repeal it. This time, St. Paul voters backed gay rights.

But back in 1978, the repeal was a low point for many in the local gay rights movement.

BEREAN LEAGUE

Roberta Brown, the Christian wife and mother monitoring bills at the Capitol, would have her low point in 1982, when the elections swept out the socially conservative lawmakers who shared her values.

"The men who had been carrying the ball in legislature, every one of them, was defeated," Brown said. "There was no voice anymore in legislature. We felt it was the end. And instead it was the beginning. You see, when the Almighty's in things, what seems like the end, is often the beginning."
 
"On their knees in prayer" was where Brown says the Berean League was born. The Berean name came from the Bible's book of Acts, and referred to people who searched the scripture and rejoiced. The Christian values group would eventually become the Minnesota Family Council.

The Minnesota Family Council, together with the Minnesota Catholic Conference, and the National Organization for Marriage, would form Minnesota for Marriage, the main group working to defeat the same sex marriage bill today.

The Berean League's first president was Wayne Olhoft, a socially conservative Democrat from Herman, in western Minnesota, who'd served in the Legislature a decade before he lost his seat in the '82 election. He was part what was called the "Pro-Life, Pro-Family, Pro-Decency" caucus.

In this 1985 call-in program with MPR's Bob Potter, Olhoft described the Berean League as a "Christian Citizen's League".

"The concept of a league was really crucial to fill a void of Christians speaking forthrightly on public issues. I think in the past, particularly in the 70s, there really was no clearly identifiable group to which you could point and say, 'Ok, this is going to represent the Christian community, particularly the evangelical segment of it," said Olhoft.

The Berean League's main issues were its opposition to abortion, gambling and the gay rights movement.

During that 1985 call-in show, some MPR callers challenged Olhoft's agenda.

"What really upsets me the most about the Berean League report on homosexuality is I don't think it really qualifies as science," said a caller from Shoreview. "Secondly, I have a real problem with classifying all gays as being anti-family. As a gay person myself who's very much loved by his family ... Our families, both my lover's and my family, will be much stronger, are much stronger, because of our relationship ... so I just don't see how you can classify all gays as being anti-family."

"Well, in their personal actions they very well may not be hostile to the creation of normal nuclear families but obviously one requirement of family is missing and that's the ability of procreation, and this absence is one of the things that leads to the very drastic level of promiscuity in the community," Olhoft responded to the caller. "There are very few that are able to sustain long-term relationships and you find that there's a great deal of reaching out to quite a variety of others and the evidence for that is quite simple if you just look at disease epidemic levels."

The disease Olhoft was referring to was AIDS. In 1985,  the AIDS crisis was enveloping the country. Minnesota had 52 AIDS cases that year. AIDS would peak in Minnesota in 1995, when 268 people died. AIDS would open up a new front in the gay rights battle during the 80s, further pushing the question of marriage aside for a while.

But during this decade, a second gay lawmaker joined Sen. Allan Spear at the Capitol.

KAREN CLARK ELECTED TO LEGISLATURE

"I was elected in 1980, the same day as Ronald Reagan. And that's where our similarities begin and end," said Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis. Clark was the first Minnesota lawmaker to run as an openly gay candidate and win. Sen. Spear had come out after he'd already been in office for two years.

Clark would become a key figure in the effort to legalize same-sex marriage in Minnesota. Her arrival at the legislature was rocky.

"They were even debating whether or not they should seat me because I was an open lesbian when I got elected because they thought somehow that was not an honorable personage to bring to the legislature," said Clark.

Clark didn't find out about all the fuss until it had blown over. She says she's grateful for that because she came into the Legislature with such optimism. Clark saw "coming out" as the most important political act gay people could make.

"Because people needed to know who gay and lesbian people were. And that included my legislative colleagues. You know, I had a lot of fun experiences and some difficult ones too," recalled Clark. "Oh my gosh, she’s a lesbian, and she's kind of a nice person and wow, what a surprise!' You know it was that kind of thing."

Clark got right to work with Spear pushing for human rights protections. MPR's Bob Potter covered one of those hearings in 1981.
"One witness identified herself as the mother of four children, one of whom is gay," Potter reported.

"The pain of discrimination is not only felt by the gay person alone, it is also felt by the family members. I really have to be anonymous because he might lose his present job and his present apartment if they knew he was gay. I feel it is very unfair. I urge that you pass this bill," testified the woman.

Lawmakers didn't pass it.

PERPICH TASK FORCE

Clark worked on hate crimes legislation in 1988 that included sexual orientation as a category. And she would serve on Gov. Perpich's Task Force on Lesbian and Gay Minnesotans in 1990.

So did Ed Flahavan, the Catholic priest who remembered the shock of Baker and McConnell's attempt to marry. By this time, he was a priest deeply involved in Catholic social justice issues. He ministered to the local Catholic group for gays and lesbians called Dignity. Gov. Perpich asked Flahavan to travel the state collecting testimony on life for lesbian and gay Minnesotans.

"We just heard a lot of horror stories of people come to the mic risking their jobs in public," said Flahavan. "I think Rochester was our first visit.  We went into city council chambers on a Friday afternoon, and the police chief, and the superintendent of schools, and the city council, and the mayor, all come forward at invitation of task force to talk about their experience with gays and lesbians within their community. In the 4:30 session it was always, 'Oh, they’re very fine, and they aren't here,  we don’t see them. They all go up to the Twin Cities. There are protections in the Twin Cities. No, we don’t have one here.'

Then at 7:30 after supper, we would then go back into chambers, and open mic to the public. And some of that stuff became pretty poignant. People saying, 'I could lose my job for speaking to you but I have to tell you I've been on drugs and alcohol since I was 16 because I knew I was gay and I couldn't do anything about it, and it ruined my life, it ruined my marriage, blah blah blah, that kind of stuff. It was painful listening."

The morning before they left town, members of the task force would take one more round of testimony, this time in secret at a rural church.

"And the gay and lesbian community that didn't testify the night before came forward with uglier stories, painful stuff," said Flahavan.

The first recommendation when the commission wrapped up its work in 1991 was to include human rights protections based on sexual orientation. Lawmakers voted it down.

But momentum was building. Rural lawmakers were learning that gays and lesbians lived in their districts, and wanted protection from discrimination. Gay rights was becoming a statewide battle Minnesota would see again in the marriage debate.

NEW NAMES, SAME IDEAS

In 1990, the Berean League, the "Christian Citizen's League", had new leadership. Tom Prichard, a mild-mannered lawyer, policy wonk and deeply committed Christian became the organization's president.  One of the first things he did was change the name:

"I'd go into interviews and people couldn’t pronounce the Berean League, they called it the 'Barean League,' and other things," Prichard said. "I figured if the name doesn’t communicate what we're about, then maybe we need to change the name." 

In 1992, the Berean League became the Minnesota Family Council.

"Obviously, we’re a Minnesota-focused organization, we're a state-based organization, and we're concerned about the family," said Prichard. "The family is the cornerstone, the foundation of society, and that's really the centerpiece of what our work is about." 

It's been on Prichard's watch, from 1990 to the present, that the question of same-sex marriage has grown more insistent.  He's been a tireless watchdog for his side.

"For probably a good share of that time, we were probably in the mode of trying to stop things we didn’t really want to see passed," said Prichard. "It's difficult to accomplish some things based on the make-up of the legislature."

Prichard believes one of the reasons they didn't have more success was that the DFL controlled the Senate, and often the House. It was early in Prichard's tenure that DFLers Allan Spear and Karen Clark would get their long-awaited victory at the Capitol.Back in 1973, DFL state Sen. Allan Spear, Minnesota's first openly gay lawmaker, had begun lobbying to add "sexual orientation" to the state's human rights law. Twenty years later, he would win that fight. 

MPR's Mike Mulcahy covered the Senate vote live on Midday in March of 1993.

"There's been a lot of lobbying on both sides of this bill," Mulcahy reported. "Minneapolis DFLer Allan Spear, who's sponsoring the measure in the Senate used a personal argument. He is gay. He told his colleagues that opponents who argue that homosexuality is a 'lifestyle choice' are just wrong."

"Let me tell you that I am a 55-year-old gay man and I am not just going through a phase," Spear said as laughter could be heard throughout the chamber. "I can also assure you that my sexual orientation is not something I chose, like choosing to wear a blue shirt and a red tie today. Why in the world would I have chosen it? I grew up in the 1950s."

"Opponents of this bill say that it would give gays and lesbians 'special privileges', and that it would sanction sexual practices that many people in Minnesota find offensive," Mulcahy reported. "Republican Linda Runbeck of Circle Pines said she didn't want to cast a vote against civil rights, but she said voting for the bill would send a message that Minnesota is promoting homosexuality."

"Variations in sexual practice do not deserve sweeping and all-inclusive protection in the law. Whether or not you agree, the passage of this bill will provide de facto endorsement of all sexual practices associated with this lifestyle," said Runbeck. "That is revolutionary and irreversible societal change that we with one flick of the button are setting in motion."

A pivotal vote in favor of the human rights bill came from then-Republican Dean Johnson, a Lutheran Pastor from Willmar, who was Senate minority leader.

"There's a fear among our constituents, there's fear among the people of Minnesota, there's fear within the members of the senate, there's fear within Dean Johnson," said Johnson. "But I will tell you if we pass this, the House passes it,  the governor signs it, it is the right thing to do. Not because we totally understand, but it's because we want to be a state that does not discriminate against its people."

Johnson's vote, as a rural Republican in favor of human rights for gays and lesbians, would bring along other votes in the Senate.

In April of 1993, MPR's Bill Catlin covered the final passage of the bill.

"The bill prohibits discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment, housing, and other areas. It also provides some exemptions for youth and religious groups and owner-occupied duplex apartment buildings," reported Catlin. "The bill includes several caveats. It says the legislation does not authorize affirmative action quotas, nor the promotion of homosexuality in schools or recognize same-sex marriages. It says the legislation does not mean the state condones homosexuality. Sen. Allan Spear, an openly gay lawmaker and sponsor of the legislation, says the bill's passage marks fulfillment of one of his major legislative career goals. He says the various exemptions and caveats were necessary as 'comfort language' as he puts it."

"This is for a lot of people a new concept and we have to provide a certain comfort level and I didn't have any great problems with the amendment that went on," said Spear.

"IR House minority leader Steve Sviggum opposed the bill and says he'll try to talk Gov. Carlson out of signing it," Catlin reported.

"The passage of this legislation is an infringement upon many persons in this state who have religious beliefs," Sviggum said. "Religious beliefs that say homosexuality is wrong and it’s an infringement upon their right."

Republican Gov. Arne Carlson signed the bill into law.

Spear recorded his oral history in 1993, the same year his human rights bill passed. He was asked about opponents from the religious right who tried to block him.

"I don't know which came first -- in some ways they were responding to us. It actually wasn't one way. They emerged as we started making gains. They saw us getting close to passing statewide legislation and they suddenly emerged and this became one of their big issues," said Spear. "So I think it worked both ways. Our successes, our increasing visibility, mobilized them."

The two sides played off each other, firing up their bases on the perceived strength of the other side. 

Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council sees the struggle over gay rights as part of a deep cultural divide in this country. Today, he sees holding back the tide on same-sex marriage as a key stake in the battle. 

"If a few gay couples want to get married, how is that going to affect your marriage?" Prichard asked. "It's not going to necessary affect my marriage, but it's going to affect the institution of marriage because it redefines it. It makes it a fundamentally different institution. The uniqueness of the man-woman relationship is no longer there. And the state will have a vested interest in promoting that new definition across the board through policies, through enforcement of laws. So it creates a genderless understanding of marriage. So no longer can the state be promoting or encouraging fathers and mothers to be involved in lives of young children because that would be discriminatory. So it has massive implications."

The year the human rights bill passed in Minnesota, 1993, was also a watershed moment in the battle for same-sex marriage.

In May of that year, Hawaii's Supreme Court ruled that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples constituted discrimination. The case cracked open the door to the possibility of same-sex marriage.

DOMA

To head that off, in 1996, a Republican-controlled U.S. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, the first federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Democratic President Bill Clinton signed it into law. It would prevent gay couples from receiving federal benefits. It also meant states wouldn't have to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Nine members of Minnesota's delegation voted for it. Martin Sabo of Minneapolis, the Democratic congressman representing Minnesota's 5th district, was the lone member of the Minnesota delegation to vote against it.

Two years later, in this MPR Midday call-in show in 1998, the late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, who had voted for DOMA, was still hearing from people unhappy with his vote.

"I've never been so hurt and angry by a politician as I was by that," said a caller named Susanna. "You're the only politician I've ever voted for where it wasn't a vote against somebody else. I have never been so angry and so hurt by that action against my family and against my children. You said you wanted to do something for children. When you signed that, you said publicly in a number of ways that you were also going to work on discrimination issues. I have no inheritance rights. I have no adoption rights. I have no Social Security rights. I have no health insurance rights. What is your plan for addressing that for my kids?"

"I have actually introduced a bill that has, I've spent about a year writing it, that provides all those rights to you," Wellstone responded. "I actually have done that. I'm sorry that you are disappointed and angry at me and I'm sorry that you are because I appreciated what you said about voting for me. I do want you to know that I introduced just a full domestic partnership ordinance bill that said people cannot be discriminated against and that you cannot -- people in a loving, durable relationship -- in all the matters you talked about,  have to be treated the same way. I have introduced that bill .... It's not going to pass right away but I have introduced the bill and I'm going to fight for it."
 
In his 2001 book, "The Conscience of a Liberal", Wellstone described his misgivings about DOMA. He said he had a perfect human rights record, but he wasn't prepared to go as far as supporting same-sex marriage. He also thought the vote was a political trap during an election year.  "I still wonder if I did the right thing," Wellstone wrote.

In 1997, Minnesota passed its own version of DOMA. The law banned gay marriage, and said same-sex marriages from other states would not be recognized in Minnesota.

DFL State Rep. Karen Clark countered with a proposal of her own: the first bill to propose legalization of same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

"We did try when there were the efforts to outlaw marriage to at least come back with a positive statement for our community, for our GLBT citizens in Minnesota," said Clark.

In 1997, Clark's bill didn't stand any serious chance of passage. The Minnesota Family Council's Tom Prichard wasn't concerned about it.

"I don't know that we saw that as a major issue because we saw the fact that DOMA has passed so overwhelmingly, especially in the state House," said Prichard. "But fast-forward ten years, and we started seeing that yes, this was going to be a major issue here."

In the late 90s, opponents of same-sex marriage had set a strong line of defense. The volley that would change everything would come from Massachusetts, in Nov. of 2003.

THE MASSACHUSETTS DECISION

"Earlier today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that gay marriage cannot be denied under the Massachusetts constitution," reported Neal Conan on NPRs Talk of the Nation. "But the ruling does not go into effect immediately. The justices gave the state legislature six months to respond to their decision. The seven couples who brought this case were represented by attorney Mary Bonauto." 

"It's an historic day because finally, all families in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will have the opportunity to be equal families under the law and now, finally, these couples who have been together years if not decades will finally have the chance to be treated equally and fairly by their government and have the right to join in civil marriage," said Bonauto. 

Then-state Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater, was standing in her kitchen when she heard the Massachusetts news on the radio. She recounted the story to supporters at a Faith and Freedom event in Eagan in January of 2012.

"And I heard that on KTIS, and I finished up the cooking, and I think the kids were at school or something so I went across the street and I went on a prayer walk," said Bachmann. "And I was deeply troubled in my spirit about this decision and I prayed and I asked the Lord at that time, 'Lord, what would you have me do?' Because I knew this was wrong.  And I felt the Lord speaking into my heart at that time, 'Bring forth a constitutional amendment defining marriage as one man and one woman', so I went out and held a press conference."

Capitol reporter Laura McCallum covered that press conference for MPR News in 2003.

"State Sen. Michele Bachmann of Stillwater calls the Massachusetts decision an act of 'unprecedented judicial activism," McCallum reported.

"So in order to secure the definition of marriage in Minnesota, we are seeking to have the definition placed within the constitution and therefore keep it beyond the reach of a judicial decision," said Bachmann.

Bachmann's constitutional amendment - the proposal that's now on the November ballot - couldn't pass the DFL-controlled Senate at the time. Bachmann went on to win election to Congress. For the next seven years, there would be skirmishes. Republicans introduced bills asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Democrats proposed bills to legalize it.

Two events in 2010 would put the two sides of the marriage debate on a collision course and make this election-year showdown inevitable. One was an election; the other was a lawsuit. In May of 2010, forty years after Jack Baker and Mike McConnell tried to get a marriage license, three more same-sex couples sued for the right to marry in Hennepin County.

MPR's Brandt Williams covered the story.

"The plaintiffs are four men, two women and one six-month old boy. Both of the male couples have been married in other states where gay marriage is legal. Tom Trisko married his partner of nearly 40 years in Canada in 2005 but Trisko says one of the reasons he's filing the suit in Minnesota is that he doesn't want to have to live somewhere else in order to be legally married," reported Williams.
"I've lived here all my life. This is my home. You know, I don't want to live in Canada or Iowa. I've always been a Minnesotan," said Trisko.

"For same-sex marriage opponents like the Minnesota Family Council, the lawsuit and the proposals at the capitol are reason to speed up their efforts to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution," Williams reported.

"With the introduction and hearing of six bills that would redefine marriage in the legislature this session really points out there's an aggressive effort to redefine marriage and I think it points out from our standpoint the need for the people of Minnesota to be able to vote on this through a constitutional amendment," said the Family Council's Prichard.

CHANGE IN CATHOLIC LEADERSHIP

The Minnesota Family Council had gotten a strong new ally two years earlier:  John Nienstedt became the the new Catholic Archbishop for St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The Family Council had worked with the Catholic Conference before on the abortion issue, and school choice, but Catholics and evangelicals weren't always together. For example, Rep. Karen Clark says Archbishop Roach was an ally in passage of the human rights law in 1993. Canon lawyers approved the language so the archbishop could sign off on it.

Former Catholic priest Ed Flahavan says Nienstedt tightened the Catholic Church's alliance with evangelical Christians.

"I think it was under John Nienstedt's arrival with his passion over this issue that they started to make music," said Flahavan.

In October of 2010, six weeks before the election, Catholic Bishops sent DVDs to every Catholic household in the state. Under IRS rules, the Catholic church couldn't endorse specific candidates or parties, but the DVDs could call for a vote on marriage.

"The archdiocese believes that the time has come for voters to be presented directly with an amendment to our state constitution to preserve our historic understanding of marriage," said Archbishop Nienstedt. "In fact, this is the only way to put the one man one woman definition of marriage beyond the reach of the courts and politicians."

The Archbishop would get his wish.

In the 2010 elections, Republicans, who favored a constitutional amendment on marriage, won control of the Legislature.

"We had the biggest change of any state legislature in the country," said the Minnesota Family Council's Tom Prichard. "The Senate switched controls for the first time in forty years, and that opened the door for it."

A constitutional amendment would allow Republicans to go around Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, a supporter of marriage rights for same-sex couples, and go directly to voters.

At the very end of the 2011 session, Republican leaders brought the marriage amendment to a floor vote.

THE LEGISLATURE PUTS IT TO A VOTE

On May 11, Senate President Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, struggled to control a gallery filled with protestors dead set against a marriage amendment.

"The sergeant will deal with the issue in the gallery and I will take just a moment to explain to our guests in the gallery today that we do not allow demonstrations. There will be no noise, clapping, shouting, booing and the sergeants and the troopers will take appropriate action," said Fischbach, banging her gavel. "If it does not stop we will clear the galleries completely. Please cease the demonstration!"

Protestors failed to derail the bill. The proposed constitutional amendment, which is now before Minnesota voters, passed the Senate on a 38-to-27 vote.

Meanwhile, in the House, DFL Rep. Karen Clark remembers there was a scramble for votes.

"I and others spent a lot of time talking to some of our fellow Republicans who said 'I don't want to vote for this. I know you're right Karen, I know that this is not something that we should be voting for," said Clark. "But you know, one guy told me he'd received a call from Michele Bachmann and that she said, 'If you don't vote for this constitutional amendment, I'll personally see that you have a primary opponent in the Republican primary election.' There were several that said that and I understand there were even more that she had said that to.  I just happened to talk to two of them."

Bachmann's office says she never mentioned primary challenges in her conversations about the marriage amendment. At an event for Republican lawmakers and evangelical pastors in January of this year, Bachmann gave her version of events.

"I was on the phone for two days straight trying to talk legislators off the ledge, to make sure that they would vote the right way," Bachmann said. "And it isn't because of me, I'm not saying that to take credit for it, I'm saying, all of us in this room were putting the pressure on to get this vote."

When the House took its vote on May 21, 2011, Tom Prichard remembers passions were running high.

"It was quite an evening," Prichard said. "It came down to the last day or two of the session. Lot of protestors making lots of noise, it was a very emotional issue obviously, for both sides." 

Cottage Grove Republican John Kriesel, an Iraq war veteran, was one of four Republicans to oppose the amendment.

"I was in an incident, I nearly died. I remember laying there, looking down and seeing my legs mangled and pretty much guaranteeing that I was done, I was a done deal. I thought that's where my life was going to end," said Kriesel. "I remember thinking of my wife and my kids. That's what crossed my mind. And that's what kept me fighting. The love I have for them. It woke me up, it changed me. And as bad as that day sucked, I've learned a lot from it and it's changed who I am for the better. Because of that, it's made me think about this issue and say you know what? What would I do without my wife? She makes me happy.  Life is hard. We're in a really tough time in our history. Really tough time. Happiness is so, so hard to find for people. So they find it. They find someone that makes them happy and we want to take that person away. We want to say, 'Oh, no you can be together, you can love that person, but you can't marry them. You can't marry them.' That's wrong. That's wrong and I disagree with it."

Outside the chamber, protestors against the amendment were chanting, "Love will prevail."

"Hear that out there? That's the America I fought for and I'm proud of that," Kriesel said. "And when my grandkids look at me and they say, 'Grandpa, where did you stand on this issue?' I'll be proud to look at them and say, 'You know what? I was on the right side of history. I was on the right side of history."

Protestors both for and against the marriage amendment lined the corridors at the Capitol, trying to drown each other out.

In five hours of floor debate, only two Republicans spoke in favor of the amendment.

"As passionate as those people are outside who you hear right now, there are just as many on both sides of this issue," said House sponsor Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud. "What are we afraid of? Are we afraid to let Minnesotans discuss this and vote?"

The House voted 70-to-62 to pass the bill.

The marriage amendment would head to voters a year and a half later on the November 2012 ballot.

ADVOCACY GROUPS FORM, OUTREACH BEGINS

Hours after the vote, two leading gay rights groups, Project 515 and OutFront Minnesota, would establish the statewide campaign that would lead the fight to defeat the amendment. Minnesotans United for All Families would grow to nearly 700 partners including faith groups, businesses, non-profits, universities and pediatricians. High profile business leaders like Marilyn Carlson Nelson would weigh in.

"I was moved to speak out on this particular issue because I find it to be injurious and counterproductive to all that I treasure and all that I have fought for my entire life," said Carlson Nelson.

It would include Democrats, Independents and Republicans, such as Wheelock Whitney, who made an ad. Even NFL players would join the debate. Vikings punter Chris Kluwe made a video.

"I hope people will vote no because at the end of the day, this is ultimately an issue about freedom, it's an issue about living your life the way you want to live it, free of the oppression of others," said Kluwe.

It's noteworthy that although the campaign manager, Richard Carlbom, is gay, more than half his staff, and many of the most prominent voices of the campaign, are straight.

The backbone of the pro-amendment campaign, Minnesota for Marriage, would be evangelical and Catholic churches.
They'd get their message out to pastors in videos.

"Our state's marriage laws are currently under attack and many are hesitant to get involved because it has become just too political. But since marriage is a picture of the gospel, our engagement is not simply political, but at its root evangelistic. And because marriage is given by God and part and parcel of our faith,  we must speak out and lead our churches in the defense of marriage," said a pastor in a Minnesota for Marriage video.

Minnesota for Marriage hired Frank Schubert, the California-based strategist who'd run winning campaigns against same-sex marriage in California, Maine and North Carolina.

"Minnesota is a tough race, it's a very close race as I think many people know from the polls, but we remain very pleased with where we're at and confident that we'll prevail," said Schubert.

The foot soldiers are pastors and parish church captains.

"We're just kind of heading the front, trying to promote education and prayer around the marriage amendment," said church captain Maria Doty.

It was a less visible campaign in many ways than the "vote no" side. Few celebrities or businesses publicly sided with Minnesota for Marriage, although another NFL player did counter Kluwe. Former Viking Matt Birk made a video for the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

"A lot of people say 'live and let live, let everybody do what they want," said Birk. "But this is too important of an issue to do that on. We need to stand up and fight for it and preserve it for our sake for our children's sake and for the sake of our entire society."

The rhetoric on the pro-amendment side has softened markedly in the years since this battle started. Unlike the 1975 testimony from the Catholic Conference lobbyist who called homosexuality abnormal, amendment supporters have taken a different tack, , like in this Minnesota for Marriage campaign ad:

"Everyone has a right to love who they choose, but nobody has a right to redefine marriage," said former news anchor Kalley Yanta in a Minnesota for Marriage campaign ad.

At a news conference on the Capitol steps, Archbishop Nienstedt made the same case.

"This is a positive affirmation, not intended to be hurtful or discriminatory to anyone," said Nienstedt.

Supporters have tried to keep the debate on the definition of marriage, rather than a referendum on gay people.

Amendment opponents have also tried something different: a conversation drive, designed to reach a million voters.

"Thirty states have passed amendments that are similar to this one. And so we've done a lot of research about what works and what doesn't," said Jen Arnold in a training session.

"In the past, our side of the fight has focused on about rights and equality and that this is discrimination. But that frame of mind does not move voters," said another trainer, Alison Froehle. "So what we're doing on this campaign is we're having conversations from the heart. We're taking it from an abstract frame of mind and into the personal, reminding people that this is going to hurt real people."

The marriage amendment became the most expensive ballot campaign in Minnesota history. According to campaign finance reports filed with the state, the two sides combined spent more than $18 million.

Opponents of the amendment spent more than $12 million from over 44,000 individual donors to defeat the measure, while those in support spent nearly half that, mostly provided by area churches and other supporting organizations.

Some of the early warriors are still involved. Roberta Brown, the then 93-year-old founder of what's now the Minnesota Family Council, says her role now is to provide prayer and support. But when the Roseville human rights commission began debating a resolution to oppose the marriage amendment, she went down to city hall. Residents sat in small groups to discuss the issue. Brown saw her opponents at close-range.

"I realized I was at a table with three lesbians and a gay man who had been vocal in the earlier meeting. And I said, 'I’m afraid that I’m coming from a very different view point so I’d better go to another table.' And they said, 'Oh, no, stay here," said Brown. "So we talked a little more. I just felt the Lord say 'open your mouth,' and that's the last thing I wanted to do. But I opened my mouth and the words that came out were, 'I am so thankful for the union that I have had the privilege of being a part of.  It was designed to bring the most privilege and opportunity and joy that the human beings can ... experience and the privilege of bringing forth precious new life, your own children, and nurture them then to be part of the next generation.' And then I thought I’d better stop and see what was happening. And I was dumbfounded. The three women sat there with their mouths open, staring at me as though they had never heard that before ... And the man was weeping."

Brown believes their stunned reaction was because her truth hit home. There's no way to know what her tablemates thought. Roseville later passed a resolution opposing the amendment, which disappointed Brown.

Ed Flahavan, the Catholic priest who served on the governor's Task force on Lesbian and Gay Minnesotans in 1990, left the priesthood in 2005 and has been married to his wife for seven years. In May of this year, Flahavan held a news conference at the Lake Harriet Bandshell with a group representing 80 former priests who opposed the marriage amendment.

"I have heard and weighed the arguments for voting to adopt the marriage amendment and I find them wanting and prejudicial and destructive of the social fabric," said Flahavan. "For the life of me, I cannot see how same-sex marriage is an any way a threat to my happy marriage."

POLLS SHOW TIGHT RACE

Amendment supporters hoped its passage will put the issue of gay marriage to rest. Tom Prichard at the Minnesota Family Council said, in the fall of 2012, he believes the truth of marriage is written on the human heart, and the majority of Minnesotans agree that marriage is between a man and a woman.

"We still believe it'll pass. We haven't been on the airwaves like the other side has, we haven't had the massive amounts of money they've had," said Prichard. "We see our people at churches and our communities are getting more aware, motivated, the resources are coming in and we will get our message out so we believe it will pass."

ELECTION 2012

Voters narrowly defeated the measure. 51% voted no, and another 1% left their ballots blank, which counted as a no vote. 47 percent voted in favor. Same sex marriage remains agains the law in Minnesota, though some lawmakers would like to change that.

More than forty years after they launched the battle for same-sex couples to marry, Jack Baker and Mike McConnell still live together in Minneapolis. The men declined to be interviewed, but McConnell sent an email.

"Jack and I know that ultimately Gay marriage will become an integral part of American life, as it now has become in many other locations across the planet. It is right, and it is why we are proud Americans," wrote McConnell. "We have always known this from the first day I told him the one commitment I asked, if I were to agree to be his, was that one day we would be legally married. He took that commitment and never relented a minute till he could fulfill our dream. From that moment I was his and he was mine, forever."
For Dale Carpenter, the constitutional law professor who's studied their case, Baker and McConnell's fight for "full and absolute equality" is part of the American story.

"What they did was to sort of set a goal that might not be reached for many decades but that we are moving toward in a serious way now. So I think they were visionary in their own way," said Carpenter. "Visionaries get dismissed as radical and crazy in their time, but before you know it, they are part of the mainstream. And I think it's safe to say that whatever you think of gay marriage, it is now part of the mainstream conversation."

It's a conversation that's spread far and wide in the intense battle over the marriage amendment that Minnesota voters will decide on Nov. 6.  Whether the amendment passes or fails, same-sex marriage will not be legal in Minnesota. But the vote will be another defining moment in a story that began in Minneapolis more than forty years ago.

It's a conversation that's spread far and wide in the intense battle over same-sex marriage that continues to this day.


Follow Sasha Aslanian on Twitter: twitter.com/sashaaslanian

Special thanks to MPR archivist Sylvia Mohn, archives production assistant John Miller, volunteer Kiely Todd Roska and Audio Engineer Rob Byers

Our program was edited by Laura McCallum, Mike Edgerly, Sara Meyer, and Gary Eichten.

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