The Minnesota Supreme Court has slapped down an apparent attempt to inject partisan politics into the title of a proposed constitutional amendment on marriage, ordering the state to use language adopted by the state Legislature.

At issue is a ballot question that will give Minnesotans the opportunity to limit marriage to one man and one woman.

Voters in nearly three dozen other states already have taken such action.

The Legislature “approved the language of the question to be placed on the November 2012 ballot regarding the proposed amendment: ‘Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?'” the state court ruling said today.

However, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie told Attorney General Lori Swanson – both of whom have made public statements against the proposal – that he had changed the title on the ballot to “Limiting the Status of Marriage to Opposite Sex Couples.”

Swanson “approved” the change, and a court action ensued.

“Minnesotans deserve to have free and fair elections, and they deserve to know precisely what they are voting for,” said Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which argued the case on behalf of the Legislature’s title.

“Because the Legislature wrote a ballot title for the marriage amendment, no official in the executive branch has any authority to replace or modify that title – especially not with one that incorrectly describes the amendment’s effect,” he said.

“Voters have the right to know that the amendment is designed to protect the ‘recognition of marriage solely between one man and one woman,’ as the Legislature accurately specified. The court has done the right thing in restoring that language to the ballot,” Lorence said.

ADF noted both Swanson and Ritchie “publicly oppose defining marriage as one man and one woman in the state constitution.”

The organization represented a number of state lawmakers and others in the fight.

“Allowing the secretary of state, an executive branch officer with no constitutional authority over the form and manner of proposed constitutional amendments, to simply ignore the Legislature’s action in proposing and passing a title to accompany a ballot question on a constitutional amendment potentially risks interfering with the Legislature’s constitutional authority,” the Minnesota Supreme Court wrote.

“We conclude that when the Legislature has included a title for a ballot question in the bill proposing a constitutional amendment, the ‘appropriate title’ the secretary of state must provide for that ballot question is the title designated by the Legislature. As a result, the secretary of state exceeded his authority … when he provided titles for the ballot questions different from those passed by the Legislature.”

The ballot issue is supported by the advocacy group Minnesota for Marriage.

The procedure for placing an amendment on the ballot is described on the state website. It says the Minnesota Constitution gives the amendment authority to the Legislature:

The Constitution of the State of Minnesota sets out the process by which it can be amended in Article IX, section 1. It requires that a majority of the members of each house of the legislature must vote to propose amendments to the constitution. The proposed amendments must be published with the laws passed at the same session. The proposed amendment must be submitted to the people for their approval or rejection at a general election. If a majority of all of the people voting at the election vote to ratify an amendment, it becomes a part of the Constitution.

Ritchie’s officer previously declined to comment on the controversy.

State Rep. Steve Gottwalt said the case is “about the rights of the people and the Legislature to function in a representative democracy without the interference of the executive branch of government.”

“It is also about preserving the constitutional integrity of the amendment process,” he said.

Gottwalt argued the Minnesota Constitution “grants the power to amend the constitution to the legislature and the people.”

“Here, the secretary of state is attempting to interfere by disregarding the given ballot title and replacing it with a misleading and incorrect proposed title,” he said.

Minnesota for Marriage Chairman John Helmberger said Ritchie’s and Swanson’s “meddling with the title of the Marriage Protection Amendment is a perfect example of why we need the marriage amendment.”

“Some politicians are so blinded by ideology and beholden to special interests, like gay marriage activists, that we simply can’t be confident they will follow the law or respect the will of the people,” he said.

“The only way to protect the definition of marriage is to secure it in the constitution where activist judges, ambitious politicians and special interests can’t meddle with it.”

The court’s order specified that the state shall use “Recognition of Marriage Solely Between One Man and One Woman” on the ballot this year.

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