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By Kyle Potter, Published May 13 2013

Experts: Despite same-sex marriages in Minnesota, change likely slow in North Dakota

FARGO – Minnesota will soon become the 12th state to legalize same-sex marriage, but that change may be years – if not decades – off in North Dakota.

Political and legal experts say the state’s markedly different political climate makes it unlikely that North Dakota will reverse its ban on same-sex marriage in the near future.

Mark Jendrysik, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota, points to the 2004 vote to ban same-sex marriage as evidence that North Dakotans aren’t likely to join Minnesota anytime soon.

Seventy-three percent of voters approved that constitutional amendment. A similar measure in Minnesota narrowly failed in November.

“People are presuming this wave of states legalizing same-sex marriage is part of an unstoppable trend,” Jendrysik said, but that’s not the case – especially in conservative North Dakota, he said. He said such a change may not come for decades, if ever.

“It’s not a given. Nothing is inevitable in politics,” he said.

Tom Freier, executive director of the North Dakota Family Alliance, said he doesn’t think much has changed in North Dakotans’ minds since 2004. He said the state’s political views don’t align with Minnesota or other states that recently legalized same-sex marriage.

Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington backed gay marriage in ballot referendums last fall, and legislators in Delaware and Rhode Island legalized it earlier this month.

North Dakotans’ views on marriage laws won’t change overnight, but UND law professor Steven Morrison said “the tide is shifting” nationally. He said that change will eventually hit North Dakota, prodded along by the state’s neighbor to the east.

The Minnesota Senate on Monday passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage on a 37-30 vote, after the House passed a companion bill last week. Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to sign it, meaning same-sex couples in Minnesota could start getting married in August.

“Once gay marriage is legalized in Minnesota, you’re going to see a lot of North Dakotans who know people who are gay or lesbian and who are married,” Morrison said.

Voters would have to approve same-sex marriage in North Dakota because marriage is defined in the state’s constitution. The measure could be put on the ballot by legislative vote or a citizen-led petition drive.

All the while, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a pair of cases on same-sex marriage. Decisions in both cases are expected in late June.

One case deals with the federal Defense of Marriage Act, part of which withholds federal benefits from same-sex couples. The decision in that case won’t affect North Dakota’s law that bars the state from recognizing legal same-sex marriages in other states.

The other is a challenge to California’s Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment passed in 2008 that bars gay couples from marrying. The decision in that case could theoretically strike down all laws that prohibit gay marriage.

Jendrysik and other legal experts don’t expect a ruling establishing a nationwide right to gay marriage. But decisions favorable to gay marriage in either of the two cases could have an indirect impact here.

Rep. Joshua Boschee, a Fargo Democrat and the first openly gay person elected to the state Legislature, said any decision from the nation’s highest court that strikes down all or parts of either law could spur North Dakota activists to challenge the state’s law.

That could be gay marriage advocates’ best bet in North Dakota, he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502