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‘America is weeping’: Taking stock after tragedies

Can this really be America in 2016?

Tumultuous days have brought echoes of decades past and made clear a public that elected a black president hasn’t reconciled its fractured history with race, that a country that lived through unrest and assassinations in the 1960s and 1970s still bubbles with resentment and rage, and that bloody images of violent tragedy aren’t going away.

“America is weeping,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, head of the Congressional Black Caucus, reflecting an entire nation’s mounting anger, tension and despair.

It started Tuesday, with a familiar scene: A black man, on the ground, shot by police, with the incident captured on cellphone video. That killing, of a 37-year-old named Alton Sterling, who police say was armed and selling CDs outside a Louisiana convenience store, ignited public outrage, and added Baton Rouge to a long list of places where the death of a black male at the hands of police has come under a cloud of suspicion.

It might have remained just that, with Sterling’s name added to a sorrowful litany alongside Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray.

Then came Wednesday.

In Falcon Heights, Minnesota, another black man was shot dead by an officer, this time after a traffic stop. As 32-year-old Philando Castile sat bloodied and dying, his girlfriend made a live broadcast on Facebook that gave an eerie look into the aftermath. As the video freezes and the woman loses composure and lets out a scream, the sweet voice of her 4-year-old daughter chimes in to comfort: “It’s OK, I’m right here with you.”

And then, like clockwork in a new deranged norm, came another evening, another night of tragedy.

As demonstrators amassed in Dallas on Thursday to mark what had transpired in the two preceding days, five police officers there to help keep the peace were shot and killed and seven other officers and two civilians were wounded. Authorities said it was the work of a sniper. The suspect, who was killed by police, had said he was upset by the recent shootings and wanted to kill whites, particularly white officers.

It was a devastating climax to three horrific days that Americans are struggling to understand.

At the Justice Department, Attorney General Loretta Lynch called it “a week of profound grief and heartbreaking loss.” In Chicago, Archbishop Blase Cupich said, “Every corner of our land is in the grip of terror.” On Capitol Hill, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Georgia said, “We feel the pain. We feel the hurt.”

Kevin Boyle, an American history professor at Northwestern University, thought of the late 1960s and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, seeing “terrifying parallels” and “echoes for me of other really incredibly tense points.” The presence of video documentation of the incidents calls attention to strife that had previously existed only in agonizing private memories.

“It’s not that the incidents are new,” he said, “it’s our ability to see them.”

At the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., Kim Hernandez welled with tears Friday as she took stock of the week. “There’s just a really scary sense of humanity right now,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know how we can fix it, but it doesn’t seem like talking is working.”

At Bible Way Temple in Raleigh, North Carolina, Darnell Dixon Sr., the chief pastor, wondered why more positive change hasn’t come. He presided over the funeral of another black man who was shot by a white officer earlier this year, and was part of a dialogue with police that followed and brought him a sense of healing.

“I started feeling better,” he said. “But yesterday set me back. It bewildered me.”

As rancor grew, a handful of violent incidents against police arose across the country, including the shooting of an officer in Valdosta, Georgia. Authorities said a man called 911 to report a break-in, then ambushed the responding officer.

Some lashed out at the movement that was born of police shootings of blacks and even at President Barack Obama, accusing him of fueling divisions among people of color and whites. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called Black Lives Matter a “terrorist movement,” while U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, a Republican from Texas, said the “spread of misinformation and constant instigation by prominent leaders, including our president, have contributed to the modern day hostility we are witnessing between the police and those they serve.”

Black Lives Matter organizers condemned the violence in Dallas, and police haven’t given any indication that the shooter had anything to do with the group.

If the gravity of it all seems clear, the road from here does not.

Does the assemblage of killings by police around the country and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement lead to more than candlelight vigils and calls for change? Does the anger that seemingly fueled the shootings in Dallas precipitate and lead to similar attacks on police akin to Black Panther-style violence of long ago? Is this a turning point or simply a continuation?

Jeanine Bell, an Indiana University professor who authored “Policing Hatred: Law Enforcement, Civil Rights, and Hate Crime,” said the week will not go down as a pivotal point unless it leads to substantive change by police that goes beyond simply diversifying forces and introducing anti-bias training.

“Until there is a call for reorganization of policing practices, not just small changes, then it’s very hard to call this a turning point,” she said.

Pew Research Center, in a survey released last month, found more than 4 in 10 blacks doubt the nation will ever make changes necessary for racial equality with whites and that nearly two-thirds of black adults believe blacks are treated less fairly than whites in the workplace.

This week’s killings come in the midst of a divisive presidential election, amid fears of terrorism and on the heels of the latest mass shooting that claimed 49 innocent lives. The killings in Dallas happened just blocks from the book depository where another sniper took aim at President John F. Kennedy. It ended his life and a period of American history that became regarded as “Camelot,” and became a presage to the strife, unrest and other assassinations that followed.

Two blocks from the shooting site, in Dallas’ historic West End district, Joe Groves owns Ellen’s Southern Kitchen & Bar, where dinner was underway when the gunfire sounded. Many of the officers who were assigned to Thursday night’s demonstration are friends of his, and as the violence erupted, he tapped out three words to two of his uniformed friends: “Love you man.”

Though Groves is white, most of his 72 workers are black and Latino; his clientele is diverse as well. The tension that came to a head in the shootings wasn’t something he’d experienced personally, until now.

On Friday, his restaurant was open again, but the atmosphere was noticeably different. He said people are speaking more quietly, and the enormity of it all seemed to weigh. He sees some good coming of it all, a connectedness between strangers that is rarely there, a willingness to make eye contact. And even though he thinks race relations may have reached their rock bottom, he sees a reason for hope there, too.

“The good news about rock bottom,” he said, “is the only way out is up.”

‘Paul’ hits the road to promote Minnesota marriage equality, St. Paul tourism

Those who go to Milwaukee’s PrideFest celebration this weekend may get introduced to “Paul,” the mobile visitor center from Visit Saint Paul, the official convention & visitors bureau of Saint Paul, Minn.

Paul will be at PrideFest June 7-9 to celebrate Pride and marriage equality in Minnesota and to encourage people to visit St. Paul.

“Passing of the Freedom to Marry Bill has the potential to bring many same-sex couples to Saint Paul who want to celebrate their wedding day with us,” said Karolyn Kirchgesler, president & CEO of Visit Saint Paul. “PrideFest Milwaukee gives us a chance to get in front of a lot of people and share why Saint Paul is the perfect destination for a wedding, a long weekend, or a full-fledged vacation.”

Saint Paul’s mobile visitor center is an eye-catching automobile with a 360-degree canopy system, sunroof, two 19-inch televisions, a spin to win wheel, bright orange chairs, cellphone chargers and completely wrapped in Saint Paul imagery. 

Visitors who take a picture of themselves with Paul at PrideFest and submit it have a chance to win a hotel overnight and two tickets to Beyonce on July 18 in a suite at Xcel Energy Center or an iPad Mini.

Entrants also become eligible for a Grand Prize VIP Saint Paul Experience, valued at $4,000 that will be drawn at the end of the summer.

On the Web …


Minnesota to become 12th marriage equality state

UPDATE: The governor will sign the bill at 5 p.m. May 14.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to sign a marriage equality bill as early as May 14, making the state the 12th in the nation to legalize civil marriage for same-sex couples.

The Minnesota Senate approved the bill 37-30 on May 13 after more than four hours of debate.

The debate began shortly after noon CST. Hours earlier, hundreds of supporters began gathering at the Capitol wearing blue and orange – the colors of the equality campaign.

The capital city of St. Paul celebrated the day — rainbow Pride flags flew on a downtown bridge renamed the Freedom to Marry bridge for the week.

The Senate was called to order shortly after 12 p.m. – after the crowd learned some rules – no demonstrations, no shouting, no applause until after a recess is called.

Sen. D. Scott Dibble, who is openly gay, presented the bill and noted that the House bill was amended to include “civil” before “marriage.”

Dibble, who sponsored the measure, described the bill as “simple” but “powerful,” strengthening families and democracy. “We’re giving people the freedom to marry in this bill,” he said.

The bill, he added, contains exemptions for religious institutions. “That’s the bill, pretty straightforward,” Dibble said.

State Sen. Terri Bonoff spoke second, as a co-author of the bill, noting that Minnesota was dealing with an issue being discussed across the country, and beyond.

A focus during the debate was on how – or whether – the legislation impacts businesses or professionals with religious missions or interests that are not considered part of religious institutions.

Dibble said regardless of what happened with marriage equality, the law already prohibits businesses or professionals from withholding the sale of goods or services from a minority people.

“Marriage (equality) doesn’t create that reality,” he said. “That’s true today.”

Still, an amendment was proposed to allow businesses with religious missions or whose owners have religious convictions to discriminate against people they don’t think should marry. Examples included a marriage adviser, a wedding photographer or a florist who didn’t want to work for a gay couple or an interracial couple.

Sen. Warren Limmer, an advocate of the amendment, said it was a narrow proposal that would protect the rights of conscientious objectors to same-sex marriage. “It’s trying to recognize the religious liberties of this state and this nation,” he said.

Dibble opposed the amendment, saying it threatened the state human rights law, which prohibits people from “picking and choosing” who they will serve in the marketplace.

“We don’t exclude folks in the public square,” he said, calling the amendment “breathtaking” in scope, damaging and unconstitutional.

Also arguing against the amendment, Sen. Ron Latz said the proposal “would authorize, legitimize – make explicitly lawful – discrimination against people because of who they marry.”

The amendment failed 26-41.

Moving into the final phase of debate, many senators talked about family and friends who are gay, about modern families and about how they were asked to vote on the right side of history.

Sen. Patricia Torres Ray explained her reasons for voting “yes” in Spanish. “There are some things that are worth fighting for: Marriage equality is one of those things,” she said.

Sen. Jeff Hayden recalled old laws against interracial marriage and said if they had remained he wouldn’t have been able to marry his wife and together they wouldn’t have their children.

Sen. John Marty said he was proud of Minnesota on a “beautiful day.”

Latz said, “Do not vote out of fear of your constituents or even of your family. Vote out of your own personal strength for what you know in your mind and in your heart is the right thing to do…”

In the closing arguments, Republican Branden Petersen, a co-author of the bill, said he could not vote “no” and feel he was doing his job well. He thanked his wife and told his children to be bold and courageous and they’d never regret a day in their lives.

Dibble said, “Today we have the power – the awesome, humbling power – to make dreams come true.” Those dreams are about a happy home, love, a family, a life shared.

“Vote yes for freedom. Vote yes for family. …Vote yes for love,” he added.

Majority Leader Tom Bakk had the last words in the debate, sharing the story of a close family friend who is gay and, as a minister, married so many couples but could not get married himself.

In the final vote, the tally was 37-30 for the marriage equality bill. 

Dayton’s signature on the bill would mean same-sex couples could begin marrying in the state on Aug. 1.

Last week, Delaware legalized same-sex marriage. The week before, Rhode Island legalized gay marriage.

“Minnesota is the third state in three weeks to enact marriage equality,” said Marriage Equality USA vice president Lisa Cannistraci. “We are more energized than ever by the rapidly accelerating pace of change nationwide.”

Last fall, voters in Maryland, Maine and Washington approved marriage equality for their states. Those votes were on the same day that Minnesota voters rejected a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

“Minnesota is a perfect example of the progress we’ve made on marriage equality in America,” said Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin.  “Voters in Minnesota brought anti-equality efforts to a screeching halt on Election Day, and today state leaders in St. Paul made it clear that all Minnesota families are equal in the eyes of the law.”

Illinois is close to passing marriage equality legislation. The Senate has approved a bill and the governor has said he will sign a measure if it passes the House.

“It is our time,” said Bernard Cherkasov of Equality Illinois, the state’s oldest and largest advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender voters. “Gay and lesbian couples in Illinois and their families deserve to be recognized. If the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in June, as expected, and Illinois doesn’t recognize the freedom to marry now, then Illinois families will be further harmed.”

St. Paul’s hot in the coldest weather

Residents of St. Paul still bridle over a New York reporter who once described Minnesota’s capital as uninhabitable during the winter months. Hardy local residents well conditioned to the season chuckle over the apparently delicate natures of New York’s residents – or at least its writers.

If anything, St. Paul has become a hot winter destination, with more outdoor activities than you can shake an icicle at. Yes, it’s cold, but as all good Minnesotans know: There’s no bad weather, just unprepared people who don’t know how to dress for the weather.

St. Paul occupies the eastern bank of the Mississippi River that both separates and unites the community of nearly 300,000 with its sister city of Minneapolis. With an almost Old World charm, St. Paul is considered the last city of the East. It’s the hometown of “Prairie Home Companion” creator Garrison Keillor.

On the river’s opposite bank, the more modern city of Minneapolis, the hometown of rocker Prince, is considered the first city of the West. 

During the 1930s, gangster John Dillinger and his cohort vacationed in St. Paul under the approving eye of Police Chief John J. O’Connor. Public Enemy No. 1 and his friends were safe to come and go as long as they registered upon arrival, paid O’Connor a bribe and committed no crimes within the city limits. Such liberal thinking may have helped foster St. Paul’s uniquely independent spirit and feed its slightly raucous character. 

Editors at The Lonely Planet travel guide recently named the Twin Cities among the top 10 U.S. destinations for 2013. They may not have been thinking of the area as a winter destination, but – truth be told – that’s when St. Paul really begins to shine.

Crashed ice craziness

St. Paul’s energy and enthusiasm in the face of subzero temperatures are among the qualities that attracted the Red Bull Crashed Ice competition to the city for the second consecutive year. The relatively new international sport of ice cross-downhill racing involves a 400-meter raised track of glare ice that skaters rocket down singly and in team competition. This year’s field began with 200 competitors from 14 countries, all of whom raced to become one of four finalists.

The event brought more than 115,000 spectators to the slopes of Cathedral Hill Jan. 24-26 to watch the finals. The St. Paul track, built in the shadow of the stately Cathedral of St. Paul, was the most technically challenging of the five worldwide Red Bull-sponsored competitions this season. 

In the end, Minnesota skater Cameron Naasz, the top U.S. competitor, grabbed third-place honors. Highlights from the event will be aired Feb. 16 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on most NBC affiliates.

All that other winter jazz

Crashed Ice wasn’t the only way St. Paul celebrated winter that weekend. The city also turned out in force for the Winter Carnival, an event originated in 1885, when the aforementioned New York reporter referred to the city as “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation.” (Minnesotans have long memories.) Offended by the remark, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce launched the carnival – a modest version of Mardi Gras held amid the snowdrifts, where it’s too cold for flashing.

Like any such event, the winter carnival elects a king and queen who are attended by a royal court of be-sparkled noblepersons, many in long fur robes and ornate headgear. The Vulcan Krewe, clad in red capes, attends to the court and carries torches.

The carnival features an ice sculpture competition and several parades. Some of the sculptures were very good, considering they were begun using chain saws. The parades drew mixed reviews, but everyone enjoyed the St. Paul Bouncing Team. 

Think of the traditional blanket toss, with seven or eight men clutching a large piece of fabric and catapulting into the air a young woman who then twirls and spins her way down. The technique worked well with the trained team members. It worked less well with the well-dressed female members of the carnival royalty, one of whom landed squarely on her tiara. We hoped there were no puncture wounds to either the participant or, more importantly, the fabric.

Drink up!

For the heartiest of souls there also was the winter Beer Dabbler, a chance for 7,500 thirsty imbibers to drink beer outdoors with the fervent hope that their lips would not stick to their commemorative glasses. More than 100 breweries each poured three to six of their most distinctive brews in a frenzy of froth and fun. 

There was no way to keep up with the bounty of brew, but that didn’t stop many of the participants from trying, especially as both darkness and the temperature fell. However, any fear of freezing was eased by the wall-to-wall bodies that shared the space with beer tables, music stages and food trucks, another fixture of the St. Paul winter scene.

No beer event has ever required this much stamina, we thought as we pushed our way to the front of the next beer line. What must these folks be like when the weather warms up?

We made a note to return in July for the summer edition of the Beer Dabbler to find out.

On the Web: www.visitsaintpaul.com

St. Paul priest pleads guilty to molesting boys

A priest who formerly served at a parish in St. Paul pleaded guilty Nov. 8, to molesting two boys and possessing child pornography, reported TwinCities.com.

Curtis Carl Wehmeyer, 48, admitted in court to sexually abusing the brothers when he was pastor of Blessed Sacrament on St. Paul’s East Side. He also pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography.

At a hearing, a judge accepted Wehmeyer’s guilty pleas to one count of felony criminal sexual conduct in the second degree and two counts of gross misdemeanor criminal sexual conduct in the fifth degree. Wehmeyer also pleaded guilty to 17 counts of possession of child pornography as part of a separate case.

After the hearing, the boys hugged family members outside the courtroom.

The molestation took place on a camping trip and in a camper at the church from June to Aug. 21, 2010. The priest owned the camper and kept it in the church parking lot.

Wehmeyer admitted to touching the brothers’ genitals, showing them porn and masturbating in front of them. The youngest of the brothers was 12 at the time.

Child pornography was found on Wehmeyer’s computer in the closet of his bedroom after a search warrant was issued to investigate the molestation.

Minn. pastor supports gay rights, may lose church

A Minnesota pastor who watched most of his congregation leave after he voiced his support for gay marriage is now at risk of losing his church, unless he can collect enough donations to keep the doors open.

The Rev. Oliver White, 69, runs Grace Community United Church of Christ. He needs to raise $200,000 by June 30 to pay off a loan the St. Paul church took out in 2007.

While the odds are steep, supporters from around the country have taken up his cause. Most of White’s fundraising efforts have entailed asking supporters to each mail in $1, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports. As of last week he had raised $13,000, he said.

“I haven’t allowed any of this to make me stop, because I feel that I have to continue in this journey,” White said. “But it’s also a monumental task.”

A black leader at the helm of a predominantly black church, White – who marched for racial equality during the Civil Rights era – faced pushback from his own community after he stood up for gay rights in 2005.

During a national synod of the United Church of Christ in Atlanta, he joined a majority of delegates from across the country in voting to adopt a resolution supporting gay marriage.

He returned to his congregation the following Sunday and explained his decision. Almost immediately he saw church membership plummet. Within weeks he lost two-thirds of his followers, and now a Sunday sermon draws at most about 20 people.

The church’s financial struggles have caught the attention of activists nationwide.

Nick Warshaw, a San Francisco entrepreneur, started a fundraising website for Grace Community.

So did Joseph Ward of “Believe Out Loud,” an online forum based in New York and Washington, D.C., where faith leaders can express their support for gay rights. He hadn’t used the forum as a fundraising tool before, but after asking for help for Grace Community the website brought in $7,100.

White said he’s grateful for the support, and he continues to believe strongly in the cause. He recently recorded a podcast with John Ong, the Kansas City, Mo., host of an online audio show, in which he said his church is not a “gay church” but welcomes everyone.

He also said he doesn’t regret taking his stand, even if it ultimately means the church will be no more.

“If we are not successful, I am not going to feel that we are defeated,” White said. “I’ve often said if one person has been turned around, if their thinking has been turned around, and they are no longer homophobic, and they can reach out and love their brothers and their sisters as they love themselves, unconditionally, without labeling them in any way, then losing the church will not be in vain.”

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Former priests oppose anti-gay marriage amendment in Minnesota

A group of 80 former Catholic priests has come out against a proposed Minnesota constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

John Estrem, a former rector at the Cathedral of St. Paul, said the Church he knows is about love and inclusion.

Estrem says, “Enshrining discrimination does not promote marriage. It simply diminishes us all.”

The November ballot measure would define marriage as between one man and one woman and is strongly supported by the Catholic Church.

Minnesota Public Radio News reports the Minnesota Catholic Conference released a statement saying only marriage between one man and one woman “is consistent with the Gospel and the demands of justice.”

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Lutheran synod opposes anti-gay Minnesota amendment

St. Paul area Lutherans are now on record against changing the Minnesota Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and woman.

The Saint Paul Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America overwhelmingly passed a resolution to publicly oppose the marriage amendment at its annual meeting in Burnsville over the weekend.

Pastor Grant Stevensen of Saint Matthew’s and the Spirit of the True Faith Community tells WCCO-TV he is proud to be a Lutheran.

This is the fifth synod vote in Minnesota to adopt a resolution opposing the amendment, which will be on the ballot in November. The Saint Paul Area Synod has more than 145,000 members and includes 112 congregations.

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Advocate names 2012 gayest U.S. cities

The Advocate magazine has released a list of its gayest cities for 2012, choosing to bypass the traditional gothams and resorts.

The list includes Salt Lake City, No. 1; Orlando, Fla., No. 2; Cambridge, Mass., No. 3; Fort Lauderdale, Fla., No. 4; Seattle, No. 5; Ann Arbor, Mich., No. 6; St. Paul/Minneapolis, No. 7; Knoxville, Tenn., No. 8; Atlanta, No. 9; Grand Rapids, Mich., No. 10; Little Rock, Ark., No. 11; Portland, Ore., No. 12; Austin, Texas, No. 13; Long Beach, Calif.; No. 14 and Denver, No. 15.

The magazine also offered a list of honorable mentions:

No. 16, Washington, D.C.;
No. 17, New Orleans; No.
18, San Francisco;  No. 19, Pittsburgh; No.
20, Salem, Ore., No. 21, Madison, Wis.; No. 22, Eugene, Ore.; No.
23, Oakland, Calif.; No.
24, Boston
and No. 25. Kansas City, Mo.

Gay marriage supporters, opponents rally St. Paul

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Both sides in the struggle over gay marriage predicted the issue will come to a head in Minnesota next year, as simultaneous rallies for and against same-sex marriage played out peacefully at the state Capitol on Wednesday.

The predictions depend on the outcome of state elections in November, with an open governor’s race and all 201 legislative seats on the ballot. The three leading Democrats competing in their party’s primary for governor and the most prominent Independence Party candidate support legalizing gay marriage. The Republican candidate, state Rep. Tom Emmer, opposes it.

The Democratic candidates are former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, former state legislator Matt Entenza and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher. The leading Independence Party candidate is public relations executive Tom Horner.

Even if a supportive governor takes office, it’s unclear whether legislation to allow same-sex marriage would pass the Minnesota Legislature. It’s never come to a direct vote before.

That didn’t stop Democratic state Sen. John Marty from predicting passage at a pro-gay marriage rally inside the Capitol rotunda.

“We’re going to come back next year, we’re going to pass marriage equality in Minnesota,” Marty said, to cheers.

While he spoke, gay marriage opponents held a rally outside, organized by the National Organization for Marriage. Brian Brown, the president of that group, said Minnesota is a key state in the fight over gay marriage.

Other speakers echoed that theme.

“This election in November is probably the most important election for family values and marriage and life in a generation, if not forever. If we lose the governorship, you’re going to see that stuff ram right through,” said Chuck Darrell, a spokesman for the Minnesota Family Council.

The two rallies were equal in size, with roughly 150 people attending each.

Theresa Tichawa, 47, a mother of five from West St. Paul, stood listening to the speakers at the anti-gay marriage rally while gay rights supporters who had been attending the other rally waved rainbow flags and held handmade signs nearby.

“I disagree with the fact that marriage should be redefined,” she said. “I’m not trying to take away their rights.”

The issue is intensely personal for Kento Azegami, 24, of Minneapolis, one of the demonstrators for gay marriage. He said he and his male partner have been engaged for two years and don’t plan to marry until it’s legal in Minnesota.

“We know that history is on our side and it will work,” he said. “It will happen.”

The issue is also before the Minnesota courts in a case filed by three gay couples seeking to strike down a 1997 Defense of Marriage law banning gay marriage.

Opponents pushed earlier this decade to amend the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage, anticipating court action to allow it. The amendment passed the House twice under GOP control but never got a vote in the Democratic-led Senate. Democrats now control both chambers.

Gay marriage is legal in five states: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, plus the District of Columbia.