ST. PAUL -- Minnesota is a vote and a signature away from becoming the 12th state to allow gay marriage.
The House voted 75-59 today to eliminate an existing gay-marriage ban in state law. A Senate vote comes Monday and Gov. Mark Dayton says he will sign the bill.
Even Republicans who oppose gay marriage say Senate support for the bill is even stronger than in the House.
The vote caps years of attempts to allow same-sex marriages.
Last year's defeat of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban it inspired gay marriage supporters to push this legislative session to overturn the ban that has been in state law for years.
The Minnesota Capitol was packed with gay marriage supporters and opponents anticipating the afternoon debate.
A last-minute compromise to clarify that clergy would not be forced to officiate at weddings of same-sex couples convinced supporters that the measure they have sought for years could be on the verge of becoming law.
The largest crowd ever was possible inside the Capitol. Up to 5,000 people were expected, from both sides of the issue.
For the first time, signs were posted on entrance doors notifying visitors that visitors could be turned away. A Minnesota State Patrol official said admission to the Capitol will be restricted based on the crowd's behavior more than actual number of people.
Law enforcement officers were plentiful. The Minnesota State Patrol mobile command post was set up north of the Capitol and patrol cruisers were posted throughout the area.
Both sides argue that money is on their side.
A UCLA analysis claims that allowing gay couples to marry would provide a $42 million economic boost in the first three years, with $27 million in the first year alone. At the same time, state officials estimate that gay spouses would cost the state $1.3 million in health insurance benefits over the next two years.
Hours before the debate, people started streaming into the state Capitol.
Margaret Schow of Richfield said she came to St. Paul to pray for the legislators as they debate and vote on same-sex marriage in Minnesota. She also wanted her side to be visible, she said.
"I wanted to show that there are a great number of Minnesotans who do not want them to pass this bill," Schow said.
Gail Crispin of South Minneapolis added she was there to "stand up for what's right." Both held bright pink signs saying "vote no."
Most who arrived early back gay marriage.
Andrew Jaye of Isanti, a same-sex marriage supporter, said he wanted to be at the Capitol to see the vote.
"It's historic," he said. He said he understands that voting for the bill could be difficult for some legislators, so "we want to support them."
"It's time to pass this," Jaye said.
The debate shifted a bit Wednesday when amendments were announced that would change the bill to use the term "civil marriage." With marriage being defined as a civil action, the theory is that the change provides more comfort to legislators and others who fear that allowing same-sex marriage would force the clergy to perform ceremonies.
"The bill does not force a religious institution to marry two individuals of the same sex." Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, said. "Furthermore, language has been added to the bill to offer additional comfort that no religious institution will be forced to act in violation of its own religious beliefs."
Falk released a letter late Wednesday indicating that he will vote for gay marriage. He and other rural Democrats have been in the spotlight because many either oppose gay marriage or wavered because their districts generally are against the bill.
"While I do not question any individual's motivations or the sincerity of their views, the arguments I have received against same sex marriage thus far have been primarily biblical in nature or simply due to the fact that the person does not like people who are gay or lesbian, neither of which are substantive arguments when deciding law in a secular institution that grants equal protection to all citizens under the law," Falk wrote.
The lawmaker said "I don't like it" is not a good reason to oppose the bill. "Marriage is about love. Marriage is about commitment. Marriage is about equality. Marriage is about finding the person that you cannot live without."
The marriage bill resulted in a continuation of a campaign that started almost two years ago when lawmakers put the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot to ban gay marriage. That attempt failed last November, and the two campaigns immediately began ramping up for a legislative vote to remove an existing gay marriage ban in state law.