Barack Obama's speech Saturday night at the Human Rights Campaign's annual dinner in Washington has, at least for the moment, brought the issue of gay rights back into the national conversation - a conversation that has largely been focused on unemployment, health care, bailouts, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the President's first nine months in office.
Carefully raising the issues of gays serving openly in the military as well as rights for same-sex couples, President Obama gave some reasons for optimism in the gay community that he may take the lead on these issues, but he did so in a way that did not contradict his previous statements during the presidential campaign - notably that he was personally opposed to gay marriage.
As Obama delicately carves out policy positions that both minimize backlash from demographics that are opposed to certain same-sex rights, as well as maintain enough support from the homosexual community that overwhelmingly backed him in 2008, Minnesotans have too revealed themselves to be a state that is increasingly divided with regards to the civil rights of homosexuals.
On the issue of gay marriage proper, there has been some movement in public opinion in Minnesota for same-sex rights as such issues have percolated on the national scene and across states during the past decade.
· In January 2004, for example, just 27 percent of Gopher State residents supported legalization of same-sex marriage, according to a Pioneer Press / MPR poll. By September 2006, the same pollster found 29 percent in favor and 54 percent opposed.
· In August of that year, Rasmussen found 36 percent of Minnesotans of the belief that marriage should be defined as a union between any two people including same sex couples, with 60 percent of the belief it should be defined in terms of a union between a man and a woman.
· In 2007, an average across six SurveyUSA polls found 37 percent of Minnesota residents in favor of the Gopher State legally recognizing same-sex marriages, with an average of 56 percent opposed.
· The last SurveyUSA poll on this question, conducted in January 2008, found that number to have tightened to 41 percent in favor and 53 percent opposed.
Meanwhile, since 2003, several states (through judicial or legislative processes) have legalized same-sex marriages including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine (though the people of Maine will ultimately decide its legality at the ballot box this November). An even greater number of states have begun to recognize 'domestic partnerships.'
Minnesota passed its version of the Defense of Marriage Act through the legislative process, which was signed into law by Republican Governor Arne Carlson in 1997. The law prohibited "marriage between persons of the same sex," and defined lawful marriage as to be "contracted only between persons of the opposite sex."
But in light of the judicial decision in Massachusetts that ruled it was unconstitutional to deny same-sex marriage, several states across the country in 2004 and 2006 amended their state constitutions when residents voted to define (in different ways) marriage as only between a man and a woman. And they did so by overwhelming majorities.
In 2004, a ban on gay marriage passed in four out of four states (Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Oregon) while several other states passed ballot measures that banned both gay marriage and civil unions: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah.
In 2006, a same-sex ban on marriage was passed in Colorado, with marriage and civil union bans passing in Alabama, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wisconsin. In 2008, the legalization of gay marriage in California ended with the passage of Proposition 8, and same-sex marriage and civil unions were banned in Florida.
Despite judicial action permitting (Iowa) or constitutional amendments outlawing (South Dakota, North Dakota, Wisconsin) same-sex rights among each of the Gopher State's neighbors in recent years, no such constitutional amendment has yet made it to the ballot box in Minnesota.
Polling conducted by Pioneer Press / MPR found narrow pluralities of Minnesotans to oppose an amendment banning gay marriage in both 2004 (49 to 43 percent) and 2006 (47 to 40 percent).
The legalization of civil unions, which were first recognized in the United States by the State of Vermont in 2000, have been less controversial among Minnesotans on balance, although four out of six surveys conducted between 2003 and 2006 found a plurality or majority in opposition to such a measure.
However, the most recent Pioneer Press / MPR poll conducted on the subject found 49 percent of Gopher State residents in favor of legalizing civil unions to give "gay and lesbian couples many of the legal protections of marriage," with 39 percent opposed.
The divide in policy preferences regarding same-sex rights among Minnesotans is not surprising, considering the divide statewide as to the causes of and morality of homosexuality itself.
Star Tribune polling from December 2003 found a sample of 1,049 Minnesota adults to view homosexuality as a sin by a 53 percent to 36 percent margin over those who did not.
However, a March 2004 Star Tribune poll found a plurarity of 45 percent to view homosexuality as 'something that can't be changed,' while just 35 percent viewed it as a 'choice.' Twenty percent were undecided. That same poll found 54 percent of Minnesotans to have at least one family member, friend, or close acquaintance to be gay or lesbian.
Minnesotans have not been presented with many constitutional amendment in recent years. However, when such amendments have appeared on the ballot, more than 90 percent have been adopted since 1982. Though there is little doubt an amendment addressing same-sex rights would attract significantly more attention (and controversy) than, say, the recent revenue raising measures which have passed.
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