For many Minnesota couples, including more than a few here on the Iron Range, this week marked a turning point in their lives together. When the Minnesota House and Senate voted for marriage equality earlier in the week, and Gov. Mark Dayton signed the measure on Tuesday, Minnesota joined the growing list of states to legalize same-sex marriage.
While some have decried the move, mostly for religious reasons, those actually affected by this historic piece of legislation have celebrated almost universally. We’ve already heard from some longtime same sex couples in our region who plan to tie the knot officially once the new law takes effect on Aug. 1. And that should be their right in a society that values the idea that we’re all equal before the law, and in a nation that guarantees us all the pursuit of happiness.
And that’s what this issue has always been about. This measure doesn’t provide anyone special rights. It doesn’t endorse anyone’s lifestyle. It simply provides all Minnesotans equal rights. Doing so does not take away the value of anyone’s marriage. It simply expands the value of marriage to every Minnesotan who wants to express their own commitment to their partner.
The language of the law expressly describes these same sex unions as “civil marriage,” which helps to clarify that the new law in no way requires religious institutions to sanction such marriages if their beliefs are in conflict. Requiring churches to perform same sex weddings would never have been possible anyway, since the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions guarantee religious freedom.
Those who object to same sex unions can continue to do so freely and exercise their beliefs within their religious congregations. In fact, passage of the law not only protects the right of churches that oppose same sex unions from having to perform such ceremonies, it expands religious liberty by allowing those congregations (and there are many) that do sanction same sex unions to perform such ceremonies with full legal effect.
There is no doubt that marriage equality is a discomfort to some, but attitudes on the subject have changed remarkably in recent years and that evolution is likely to advance even more quickly once Minnesotans realize that the impact of this measure is actually quite limited. Same sex couples, who in the past relied on commitment ceremonies or other unofficial means of expressing their devotion, can now obtain the same piece of paper at the courthouse as the rest of us. That’s all there is to it. Of course, to the couples involved, and their friends and family, it’s a source of great happiness. But for those who aren’t acquainted with any same sex couples, it should not affect their lives at all.
We must recognize, however, that while attitudes have changed dramatically on this topic, it still took political courage for many legislators from outside the metropolitan region to support this measure. Here in northeastern Minnesota, our entire delegation voted for marriage equality, and they have no doubt heard and will continue to hear objection from many constituents. Sometimes, however, to do what’s right is also to do what’s unpopular. Those politicians who are occasionally willing to rise on a matter of principle and stand in the face of public opinion are called leaders— and in the end, most voters respect such leaders even when they don’t always agree with them.
While this law won’t really impact most of us, it’s hard not to feel that this week was a milestone in our state’s history nonetheless. In becoming the first state in the Midwest to establish marriage equality legislatively, Minnesota has again taken the lead in advancing tolerance and a progressive vision. Other states in the region will follow in Minnesota’s footsteps.