Supporters urge same-sex partner benefits

ST. PAUL -- More than 2,000 people called on Minnesota lawmakers Thursday to support legislation to open up health and hospital visitation rights for same-sex domestic partners.

ST. PAUL -- More than 2,000 people called on Minnesota lawmakers Thursday to support legislation to open up health and hospital visitation rights for same-sex domestic partners.

OutFront Minnesota -- the state's largest gay rights group -- rallied supporters on the Capitol steps. The House is expected to vote on a series of domestic partner provisions today.

The legislation, which has a good chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Legislature, includes provisions making same-sex partners eligible for state insurance benefits and requiring employers to include domestic partners as part of an expanded pool of people for whom employees are allowed to take sick leave.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty Thursday repeated his pledge to veto any bills extending benefits to same-sex partners.

Rep. Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, echoed the governor's prediction, saying the bill's same-sex provisions would mean more costs to taxpayers and would reach a dead end when the legislative session wraps up.


"It's the wrong direction to be going for supporting traditional families in the state," Sviggum said.

Still, many rally-goers expressed hope that a DFL-controlled Legislature would mean greater support for gay rights issues.

"I think the tide has turned," said Angie Nichols, who represented of a delegation from Duluth. "It will be much easier this year to appeal to the idea of fairness and equality -- for all people, really."

Organizers said turnout for the rally was somewhat lower than in recent years, when activists railed against bills calling for voters to consider a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. That issue isn't dead, said Ann DeGroot, OutFront Minnesota's executive director, but noted that since tensions surrounding the issue aren't as high this year, motivation may have been lower.

While pro-gay rights' advocates push for several initiatives, those who oppose gay marriages are trotting out a constitutional amendment proposal they failed to pass the past couple of years.

"The phrase 'let the people vote' is going to be heard again in the Legislature," Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said.

The amendment would define marriages as being between one man and one woman, which would ban marriages between gays and lesbians. The public would vote on the amendment in the November 2008 general election.

Limmer said Democratic-Farmer-Laborite leaders had said they would not push social issue bills this year, but on behalf of the gay community they are trying to pass at least nine measures to expand domestic partners' rights. Since Democrats decided to back domestic partner legislation, Limmer added, conservatives opted to bring up the anti-gay marriage amendment.


Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, called the amendment "a bread and butter issue."

State law already forbids gay marriages, but backers of the amendment say they want the prohibition in the state Constitution because that would be more difficult to overturn.

Red Wing supporters of same-sex partners' rights met with Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, before attending the rally.

Many of them attended in support of gay children. Many realities for gay and lesbian couples can be hard, said Red Wing resident Burt Will "They have access to very few benefits," said Will, a member of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Murphy said he's seen firsthand the bright side of extending health benefits to workers on the private side.

"I think it's time to be a little more aggressive in that area," he told the delegation.

A contingent from Bemidji visited with politicians from their area, including Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji.

Even if lawmakers are receptive -- as Olson has been to gay rights, supporters said -- it's important to touch base with them, a Bemidji man said.


"It's nice to be able to come and say thank you to lawmakers," Sam Hunter Malloy said.

Paul Eckhardt, a rally-goer from First Unitarian Church of Duluth, said he believes the faith-based community has the potential to make a serious impression on lawmakers. Eckhardt, who held a rainbow-colored flag bearing the church's name with Julie Morgan - also of Duluth - said his message for lawmakers is simple.

"We're families too," Eckhardt said, adding that gay partners should have every right to visit each other in the hospital.

"It's basic."

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