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McNamara backs civil union alternative to same-sex marriage

Rep. Denny McNamara of Hastings says on Wednesday, April 3, that he has supported civil unions for 11 years. A civil union bill is being introduced in the Legislature. McNamara's House district includes part of south Washington County. Forum News Service photo by Don Davis

One south Washington County-area Republican legislator supports civil unions as a step short of full marriage for gay couples, but a prominent local former GOP lawmaker said that doesn't go far enough.

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, joined a handful of other GOP House members and one Democrat Wednesday to propose civil union legislation that would give gay couples the same rights as married couples.

Such a move is "supported by a vast majority of Minnesotans," Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said.

Under the proposal, there would be no difference in Minnesota between such a union and a marriage other than what they are called. However, if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns a federal gay marriage ban, that distinction would matter. If gays could marry, couples would have more federal rights than those in civil unions.

"Government's role is to protect the individual," Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said Wednesday, adding that the bill authorizing civil unions he is introducing would do just that. The bill would allow any two people, gay or straight, to join in a civil union.

Gay marriage advocates immediately said the bill would create legal inequalities between gay and straight couples.

Those who criticized the civil union plan included John Kriesel, a Cottage Grove Republican who was a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage during his 2011-2012 House term.

"The civil union bill offered today is a half---- attempt at marriage equality," Kriesel wrote on Twitter. "It is to marriage what an honorary degree is to education."

Kriesel and Kelly were among four House Republicans who in 2011 voted against putting a constitutional amendment banning on same-sex marriage on last year's general election ballot. Voters rejected the amendment.

After sharply criticizing the civil union legislation on Wednesday, Kriesel backed off a bit, saying he supports Kelly, the bill's sponsor, and that it was a "step in the right direction."

"I prefer the same-sex marriage bill but I'm not convinced that it has the votes to pass," Kriesel wrote. "If not, then civil unions is (the) only option left."

Three Republican representatives, including McNamara, joined a Rochester Democrat in signing on to Kelly's bill.

Rep. Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury, said civil unions would address concerns she has heard from constituents who want same-sex couples to have the same rights as married ones.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said the Kelly measure could bring peace to the Legislature, unlike what would happen if a bill to legalize gay marriage is debated. "I have seen when half of the state fights half of the state, and it isn't pretty."

Bills to allow gay marriage have completed the legislative committee process and are due for full House and Senate votes late this month or in May.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, called Kelly's proposal a "distraction and diversion," coming as lawmakers concentrate on writing a state budget.

Dibble, who is gay, said civil unions are not a compromise.

"Civil unions simply don't work," Dibble said. "They are an inferior, separate legal status."

But Kelly said his bill would treat the gay and straight couples the same. The measure would add "civil unions" wherever marriage is mentioned in state law.

Minnesota law does not allow same-sex marriages.

Most Republican lawmakers oppose gay marriage, as do many rural Democrats. The rural Democratic opposition puts gay marriage legalization in doubt, even in a Legislature dominated by Democrats who generally support the idea.

Kelly said he does not support a move this year to legalize gay marriage.

"What this is trying to do is end this discussion," Kelly said about his proposal. "This is an opportunity to heal a lot of the wounds."

It is not clear how Kelly's bill can proceed. It is past legislative deadlines, so if Democratic committee chairmen refuse to take up his bill, Kelly's only choice may be to try to amend it onto a gay marriage bill on the House floor.

Gov. Mark Dayton thinks that Minnesotans have moved beyond civil unions and now support gay marriage, his spokeswoman said.

Kriesel's successor, DFL Rep. Dan Schoen of St. Paul Park, has said he will support legalizing gay marriage.

Dibble predicted the Legislature will approve gay marriage this year.

Nine states and Washington, D.C. allow same-sex marriages.

Colorado will become the ninth state to allow civil unions May 1.

If the U.S. court overturns the federal gay marriage ban, as Dibble said he expects, civil unions would not allow gay couples to access more federal benefits, including filing joint income tax returns. The couples would have to be married to take advantage of the change, Dibble said, so those in civil unions still would not be eligible.

Generally, civil unions give gay couples many rights enjoyed by married couples, such as parental rights and the ability to make medical and other decisions for partners.

@9on11:Scott Wente contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.