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Raising the curtain on a potentially bitter, prolonged political battle, Republican legislators announced Tuesday that they will propose placing a constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot that would define marriage in Minnesota as only between a man and a woman.

Although state law already defines marriage in those terms, backers of the proposal say a constitutional amendment is needed to ward off court rulings that could overturn that law.

"Allowing a number of politicians ... or, heaven forbid, activist judges to decide the definition of marriage would simply not be acceptable," said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, one of the sponsors of a bill to put the amendment on the ballot.

With such a long time between now and next year's election, it will allow for "a statewide community discussion about what marriage should be," Limmer said.

"We think it's time to take it to the people," said Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud.

Similar bills have been introduced in recent legislative sessions, but DFL majorities have consistently blocked their passage. With Republicans in charge of both the House and the Senate, passage this year seems likely.

The proposed amendment was immediately denounced by DFL legislators and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, whose hands would be tied if it's approved. Constitutional amendments don't require a governor's signature and cannot be vetoed.

"I strongly oppose a constitutional amendment that would prohibit same-sex marriage," Dayton said. "I think to bind future generations from making their own reasoned decisions about what they think is appropriate is a big mistake."

The DFL's legislative leaders said the proposed amendment is a distraction from the state's continuing budget woes and will spawn a divisive, expensive campaign between now and the 2012 election.

"What family does this help in Minnesota, especially during this time of economic difficulty and crisis?" asked Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis. "This bill helps absolutely no one."

Dibble, who is gay, added that marriage "is about love, commitment and responsibility. That's all it is. It's about people trying to take care of each other economically."

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, sponsor of another bill to put the amendment on the ballot, said he believes "people want gays and lesbians to live however they choose. They do not want to redefine marriage."

Limmer pointed to a recent poll commissioned by the Minnesota Family Council, showing that more than half of Minnesota's registered voters believe that marriage should be limited to a man and a woman -- and that three-fourths want to vote on the issue.

OutFront Minnesota, the state's largest gay and lesbian advocacy group, already has branded the amendment's authors as "anti-equality legislators."

"They are taking valuable time to introduce a constitutional amendment that would discriminate against Minnesotans," said Monica Meyer, the group's executive director. "This is completely counter to the direction public opinion is moving."

Hearings on the amendment are likely to begin as soon as this week and Republican leaders said they chose to introduce it now to meet their self-imposed deadlines for policy bills.

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, dismissed that rationale as "another deceptive tactic to distract people" from Republicans' budget-cutting plans.

Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Bob von Sternberg • 651-222-0973