By David Bailey
MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - The Minnesota Senate voted on Wednesday to put a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in the state to a voter referendum in 2012.
Minnesota already has a law banning gay marriage, but sponsors argued that the proposed amendment would take the definition out of the hands of a small group of legislators and even smaller group of judges.
After nearly 3-1/2 hours of debate the Senate voted 38 to 27 in favor of advancing the proposal, with the vote largely along party lines in the Republican majority body.
Republican lawmakers introduced the proposed amendment in late April and it next needs approval in the Republican majority state House.
"I believe it is the people who should determine the meaning and structure of our policies through the process of political debate, a statewide community conversation and ultimately democratic voting," said state Senator Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican and sponsor of the proposal.
Democratic Governor Mark Dayton, who strongly opposes any constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, also would be bypassed by putting the question directly to voters.
"We are not going to have a conversation, we are going to have an ugly, angry, divisive campaign," Senator Scott Dibble, a Minneapolis Democrat, said during the debate.
Dibble, who is gay and showed a picture of his partner in the debate, said Minnesota would be "profoundly changed through this 18-month experience that we are about to embark on."
Senate Democrats also questioned the drive to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot less than two weeks before the end of the legislative session with the state's $5.1 billion budget gap still unresolved.
"It sends a pretty clear message to me that Republicans in this body care more about passing their divisive social agenda than putting Minnesotans back to work or balancing the state's budget," Senate Minority Leader Thomas Bakk said.
(Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Jerry Norton)