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Gay marriage issue split south Washington County lawmakers

Gay marriage supporters sing "America" Monday. May 13, 2013, before a Senate vote to make same-sex marriage legal. Forum News Service photo by Don Davis

Gay marriage split south Washington County's legislators just as it divided area residents.

In historic votes to make Minnesota the 12th state to legalize same-sex marriage, Cottage Grove area lawmakers split -- and both sides cited constituents' support for their decision.

Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, was among 75 House members last Thursday to approve changing state law to allow gay marriage beginning Aug. 1. Republican Rep. Denny McNamara sided with most GOP colleagues and two Democrats in opposing the change.

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, backed the bill in a 37-30 Senate vote on Monday, the final legislative step in a years-long battle over gay marriage at the Capitol. Gov. Mark Dayton planned to sign the bill Tuesday evening, after the Bulletin went to press.

Schoen, a freshman, said his vote matched the position he campaigned on last fall. At the time, he said he would support gay marriage if given the opportunity to vote on the issue. With Democrats taking control of both legislative chambers this year, that vote came sooner than expected and only months after state voters rejected a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

"This is the right thing to do," Schoen said. "I was out front with people when I was campaigning. I feel good about the response from within the district."

McNamara was among a handful of Republicans who had pushed for a civil union alternative. McNamara voted for an amendment to the gay marriage bill that would have eliminated "marriage" from state law and replaced it with "civil union." That was rejected and the House approved the gay marriage bill 75-59.

"If we're going to have marriage, I think marriage is one man, one woman," said McNamara, R-Hastings.

Sieben, who recently had her third child, said she wants to tell the state's children: "No matter who they fall in love with some day, the people of Minnesota will treat them with respect."

And, Sieben added to children, "today we vote to affirm that we respect you and we want to have a more fair and more equal Minnesota."

Gay marriage supporters and opponents filled Capitol corridors as lawmakers debated the bills in recent days.

"I listened to the debate," McNamara said, "and decided that I'd stay with what I've been saying all along."

Some lawmakers who opposed the bill cited strong support in their home districts for the failed gay marriage ban last fall. In McNamara's District 54B, which includes a portion of south Washington County, voters were closely divided over that amendment. Roughly 47 percent of District 54B voters supported the gay marriage ban, while 51 percent voted no.

McNamara said the input he received from constituents leading up to the vote to allow gay marriage also was split, though there was slightly more opposition toward legalizing it, he said.

"I had to weigh all of the situation and all of the thoughts on the issue and then vote what I thought was the right thing," he said.

In Schoen's District 54A, 55 percent of voters opposed the amendment last fall. Schoen said he received similar feedback in the run up to the gay marriage legalization vote.

"The emails (had) been pretty steady for support all throughout the session," he said, though gay marriage opponents stepped up their appeals in the days before the vote. "Quite frankly, within the district it's been more pro-equality than anti-equality."

Schoen applauded an amendment to the bill that made all references to marriage "civil marriage," a response to fears among some religious leaders that they would have otherwise been forced to perform same-sex marriages against their religious beliefs. Opponents said that didn't go far enough.

"I personally believe in the religious provisions that are in there and that making sure that our religious institutions are protected," Schoen said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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