Lawmakers insert civil union plan into gay marriage debate
ST. PAUL -- Civil unions would give gay couples the same rights as married couples, says the sponsor of a Minnesota House proposal that is a step short of full marriage.
"Government's role is to protect the individual," Representative Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said Wednesday, adding that a bill authorizing civil unions he is introducing today would do just that.
Gay marriage advocates immediately said the bill would create legal inequalities between gay and straight couples.
Kelly's bill would allow any two people, gay or straight, to join in a civil union.
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.
Three Republican representatives joined a Rochester Democrat in signing on to Kelly's bill.
Representative 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.
Such a move is "supported by a vast majority of Minnesotans," Representative Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, added.
Representative 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.
Senator 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.
Two years ago, Kelly was one of four Republican lawmakers to vote against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage. Minnesotans defeated the amendment last November.
On Wednesday, he 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.
Governor Mark Dayton thinks that Minnesotans have moved beyond civil unions and now support gay marriage, his spokeswoman said.
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.