by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter
Sen. Branden Petersen sat against a flat-white office wall last Friday, March 15, talking about a big decision.
“If you want to blame me for forcing this confrontation, you can. But I think the confrontation was inevitable,” Petersen said of Republicans and same-sex marriage.
Newly elected to the Senate, Petersen’s decision to back legislation permitting marriage between same-sex couples surprised fellow Republicans and has given the freshman a higher profile than normally befalls Senate newcomers. Petersen voted for the Republican-sponsored amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman, which was rejected by voters last fall. He has since been pondering that vote.
“I would say absolutely that two years of reflection has crystallized my feelings,” he said.
Ultimately, Petersen looked to the U.S. Constitution for guidance.
“My understanding of the 14th Amendment of Constitution leads me to believe that marriage is a legal definition and should be applied equally to all people, regardless of gender,” Petersen said.
But it’s not quite that simple.
As a Christian, Petersen views the marriage issue differently than a lawmaker who has a secular world view.
“My personal religious beliefs inform me that marriage is between one man and one woman,” Petersen said.
People need to be mindful of distinctions between religious doctrine and application of secular law, he explained.
“I think it’s important for people to know that it’s OK to be somebody who has religious beliefs but also understands that the Bible, if you would try to code it into law, would be unconstitutional,” Petersen said.
His prominence on the marriage issue reflects a lack of competition. No other Republican has yet publicly indicated support for the marriage legislation before House and Senate, though Petersen said he wouldn’t be surprised if a handful of Republicans ultimately voted in favor.
Actually, Petersen’s own support is conditional.
“If they were to water-down the religious exemption language in the bill, I would be out,” he said of provisions carving out exemptions in state Human Rights Law and otherwise prohibiting fines or penalties being exacted against churches or other religious associations refusing to perform same-sex marriages.
“That language exists, in my opinion, because of my engagement (in the process),” Petersen said.
Petersen’s stance on the marriage issue has drawn praise from the Right. Former Republican Sen. Paul Koering of Fort Ripley, a gay legislator, is proud of Petersen for standing up for his convictions. He also believes Petersen is taking a “huge risk” politically.
“The Republican Party, in my mind, will go after him with both barrels,” said Koering, now a Crow Wing County Commissioner who no longer considers himself a Republican.
Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, finds Petersen’s willingness to state his beliefs commendable.
“Branden is doing what he believes he should do — how do you fault him in a deep way?” he said. But those who disagree have every right to act in opposition, Abeler said.
Petersen knew his stance would be controversial.
“I knew incumbent in my decision was the fact there would people who would never support me again,” he said.
But Petersen, 27, argues the same-sex marriage issue is hurting the Republican Party. For one thing, it’s bad politics.
“Even after we passed the marriage amendment, we turned around and didn’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole,” Petersen said. “We already know we can’t run on it,” he said.
And, there’s a generational factor, Petersen said. His generation grew up in an era when people could be out in the open in terms of their sexuality.
“I think it’s hard for people under 30 to buy into the dogma of the opposition — we just haven’t lived that. We just haven’t lived where society is going to crumble, if you will, if this happens,” he said of same-sex marriage.
Views within the Republican Party differ. Former State Auditor Pat Anderson argues the “Liberty” wing within the party views marriage as outside the proper realm of government. Former House Speaker Steve Sviggum warns against the Republican Party trying to become the Democratic Party.
“You can’t expect Republicans to throw all our values out the window,” he said.
Civil unions, Sviggum suggested, might be “common ground.”
But Richard Carlbom of Minnesotan United, a legislation group supporting the same-sex marriage bill, said young people look forward to their wedding day. They do not look forward to their civil union day.
Hennepin County Board Commissioner Jeff Johnson, state Republican Party national committeeman, said he believes, in time, same-sex marriage might be accepted by a majority of Republicans.
“For me, I don’t want that to happen,” Johnson said.
But Johnson indicated Republicans can hold different views and be good Republicans.
For Petersen, there will be no retreat.
“I am a proud Republican, a proud conservative,” said Petersen, a self-diagnosed libertarian-leaning conservative. If out of office, he’ll work as a private citizen to push the Republican Party.
He would be lying, though, if he said everyone in his own family agrees with him, Petersen explained. One regret he has, he said, is the effects of his exposure in recent weeks have spilled over to his family.
“This situation has been difficult on her,” Petersen said of his wife, Jessica. The Petersens have two young children. “We’ve had people come to our house, post things on Facebook pages.
“That’s actually the toughest thing for me, just seeing my wife and her stress and how it relates to this issue,” he said.
Petersen is philosophical about his political future.
“I have my whole life in front of me,” Petersen said. “I’m not going to spend my life chasing a legislative term.”
Most people, Petersen said, appreciate lawmakers who say what they believe. But the same-sex marriage debate is a tough one.
“The response from the district is very divided,” Petersen said. “There’s a lot of passion on both sides. And that can be kind of stressful.
“But I do think in the long run, our party, our side, is going to have to confront this issue,” Petersen said.
Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected]