ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota House signed off on a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage late Saturday, clearing the way for voters to decide the issue in 2012.
After nearly six hours of emotional debate, mostly from opponents of the ban, the House voted 70-62 to approve putting the question on the statewide ballot next year. Four Republicans joined all but two Democrats in voting against it.
State law already prohibits gay marriage, but supporters of the proposed amendment said it was necessary to prevent judges or future lawmakers from making gay marriage legal in Minnesota. Critics said the plan is divisive and such an amendment would put discrimination into the constitution.
The amendment would define marriage as only between a man and a woman.
Rep. Karen Clark, a Minneapolis Democrat, described her 22-year committed relationship with her female partner and said they'd considered getting married in Iowa, where gay marriage is legal, so her ailing father could see her marry.
"Please don't make me go off to Iowa," she told colleagues before the vote. "I was raised in Minnesota. I'm a child of Minnesota."
After the vote, Clark said it was "a sad day for Minnesota."
But Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, said it was an important step and that "Minnesotans have been given the opportunity to have an important conversation about the future of marriage."
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has no power to block the question from the ballot, but said before the vote Saturday that he would fight its passage. Dayton called the amendment, which the Senate approved last week, "un-Minnesotan."
A rare quiet prevailed in the House chamber as members made emotional and often personal speeches in opposition to the amendment. The issue drew an unusually large crowd to the Capitol, where hundreds of supporters and opponents traded loud chants earlier in the day but quieted considerably when the debate started around dinnertime.
Rep. Steve Gottwalt, the bill's sponsor, said voters should have the final word on the issue.
"This is not about hatred. It is not about discrimination or intolerance," said Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud.
But another Republican, Rep. John Kriesel, described how losing his legs in Iraq began a personal transformation of his views on the issue. He said he would have supported the amendment five years ago, but has since realized that the country for which he fought should not deny the right of two people who love each other to marry.
"I'm pleading with you to vote no," said Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove. "I'm begging you."
Ban opponents were in the majority among those who stayed late to watch the debate on the second floor of the Capitol, where televisions were broadcasting a live feed. They could be heard from inside the House chamber singing hymns and occasionally cheering during pivotal moments of some lawmakers' speeches.
The debate had been postponed Friday after a pastor known for anti-gay comments delivered a controversial prayer on the House floor that prompted Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers to apologize.
During flood debate, many lawmakers spoke of their own marriages and families, gay relatives and friends, religions and military service, or facing discrimination and bullying as children. Several said they worried that an 18-month debate on the issue between now and November 2012 would leave gay youth feeling marginalized and vulnerable.
Among the few Republicans who spoke during the debate was Rep. Tim Kelly of Red Wing, who called the proposed amendment "an assault on personal freedom and choice" and a "giant step backward."
Besides Gottwalt, the only other Republican to speak in favor of the amendment was Rep. Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake. He described being torn, and said his teenage daughter recently pointed out that she would be 18 by November 2012 — and said she plans to vote against the ban.
"She said, 'Dad, I think a person should be able to marry whomever they love whether it's the opposite sex or not,'" Hamilton said.