California gay marriage (8/14/10)
Associated Press

Polls suggest legal same-sex marriage across America is likely inevitable. From Massachusetts to Mississippi, young people increasingly support gay rights, meaning it may only be a matter of time before the majority of voters supports gay marriage.

An important step toward that point could be achieved this fall, when Minnesota voters decide whether to amend their state's constitution to bar same-sex marriage. According to polls, support and opposition to the measure are about even (within the margin of error).

A victory in a moderate Midwestern state would be an enormous achievement for the gay rights movement, which lost a similar battle in Wisconsin in 2006, when 59 percent of voters supported a constitutional amendment to forbid same-sex couples from marrying or enjoying any “legal status identical or substantially similar” to marriage.

Currently, six states allow same-sex marriage: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont, plus Washington, D.C. Five more states allow civil unions.

Kate Brickman, the press secretary for Minnesotans United for All Families, the group campaigning against the ballot measure, says the “Vote No” coalition, which includes 330 organizations, is the largest grass-roots movement in state history.

In fact, her organization, which was born in the days after the state legislature approved putting the amendment on the ballot nearly a year ago, employs between 70 and 80 full-time staffers in five offices around the state. At the end of December, the group had already raised $1.4 million, the great majority of which came from thousands of individual in-state donors.

In contrast, there appears to be little grass-roots vigor from Minnesota’s same-sex marriage opponents.

As of December, the head group in charge of the “Vote Yes” effort, Minnesotans for Marriage, had received almost all of its money from other groups, such as the Catholic Conference of Minnesota’s Marriage Defense Fund, which is financed largely by the Archdiocese of St. Paul, and other groups, such as the National Organization for Marriage and the Minnesota Family Council.

Phone calls to Minnesotans for Marriage were unsuccessful, as the line was apparently disconnected. The Minnesota Family Council did not return calls either.

Brickman and other gay rights activists say a set of peculiar conditions in Minnesota might make for the perfect storm.

“For one, we’ve known that this vote was coming up for 18 months. ... The average amount of time other states have had to respond is five and a half months,” she says.

In addition, according to Minnesota election law pertaining to referendums, those who vote on Election Day but skip the referendum on their ballot will be counted as “no” votes.

Eric Jensen, a spokesman for Project 515, another gay rights group, does not expect that rule to have a great effect on the result, but says it still gives his side a small edge.

“We’re anticipating a 1 to 2 percent skip rate,” he says, noting that the prominence of the issue will make the measure easier to understand than other referendums, which 4 to 5 percent of voters typically skip.

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Katie Belanger, the executive director of FAIR Wisconsin, this state’s largest LGBT rights group, says there isn’t as much anti-gay zeal as there was several years ago, largely because conservatives have seen that it can backfire on them.

“They got the amendment passed (in 2006), but they didn’t get the electoral gain they envisioned,” she says. “It has made them rethink using the LGBT community as a wedge issue.”

Indeed, some GOP strategists concluded after 2006 that the marriage amendment had done little besides driving supporters of gay rights, particularly young voters, to the polls. Perhaps as a result, the GOP-controlled legislature made no move during the last legislative session to repeal the domestic partner registry put in place by Democrats in 2009.

Julaine Appling, the head of Wisconsin Family Action, the group that led the campaign to ban gay marriage in Wisconsin six years ago, says she does not expect to get heavily involved in Minnesota’s battle.

“The last time I checked, we have our hands full in Wisconsin,” she says, referring to the recall battle and upcoming elections, which her socially conservative group will be active in. “Obviously if somebody in Minnesota called me and said they need boots on the ground, we would let our people know.”

Appling thinks polls that show a weakening movement against gay marriage are the result of the “media, public education and an all-out assault on traditional family values,” and predicts victory for the supporters of traditional marriage in Minnesota.

Whatever the result of the Minnesota election, Wisconsin marriage equality advocates are likely many years away from realizing their vision. The current ban on gay marriage is ingrained in the constitution, meaning a repeal will require passage of a new constitutional amendment by two consecutive sessions of the Legislature and then ratification by the voters.

Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.