ST. PAUL, Minn. — Fallout from a controversial pastor’s prayer on the floor of the Minnesota House riveted the state Capitol on Friday, and appeared to at least temporarily derail a vote on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage with just 72 hours left in the regular legislative session.
The morning prayer by Rev. Bradlee Dean, who had previously made derogatory remarks about gay people, included a veiled swipe at President Barack Obama and made explicit Christian references in violation of House custom. It drew a swift rebuke from Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers.
"Earlier today there was a prayer given by a man I personally denounce," said Zellers, a Maple Grove Republican. Zellers spoke from the House floor, traditionally a rare move by the House speaker.
But Zellers’ denunciation and subsequent apology to colleagues did little to quell the circus.
A few hours later, Dean put out word that he would return to the building to address the controversy surrounding his prayer. For nearly an hour, dozens of reporters, lobbyists, Capitol staffers and even lawmakers milled on the second floor awaiting his appearance — but he never showed.
Prior to the prayer, both supporters and opponents of the gay marriage amendment had loudly rallied in the Capitol in expectation that the House would vote on the measure Friday. House approval would ensure the proposed amendment would be on the 2012 statewide ballot, which would ask voters whether the Minnesota Constitution should define marriage as only between a man and a woman.
"This all has certainly slowed it down a bit," said Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who supports the amendment. "It’s what you would call a bump in the road."
The House planned to return for a Friday evening floor session, but a vote on the amendment appeared unlikely. That would leave Saturday, Sunday and Monday as possibilities for a vote since the required end of the regular legislative session is midnight Monday.
House GOP staffers and leaders were tight-lipped about when or if a vote would come. Zellers, leaving an afternoon budget negotiation with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, declined to say.
The measure has already passed in the Senate, but if the budget forces lawmakers into a special session, the Senate would be required to pass it again.
The controversy engulfed the legislative session in its crucial final days, as Dayton and GOP leaders struggled to find elusive common ground over how to erase the state’s $5 billion budget deficit.
When asked about Friday’s prayer, Dayton said: "Hatred has no place in the Minnesota Capitol, certainly not on the House or Senate floor. Let’s leave it at that." The governor is opposed to the gay marriage amendment but can’t block it from the ballot.
Dean leads an Annandale evangelical ministry known as "You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International." In an interview last year, he called homosexuals predators and molesters.
Any of the 134 House members can invite religious leaders to deliver opening prayers. Zellers’ spokeswoman, Jodi Boyne, said the speaker and House staff did not vet the choice beforehand.
Rep. Ernie Leidiger, R-Mayer, acknowledged Friday that he made the invitation, which in retrospect he called a "mistake." Leidiger, first elected in November, said he wasn’t aware of Dean’s past comments about gay people, which he called "unfortunate."
Leidiger said someone from Dean’s ministry requested the invitation. He said his only knowledge of Dean was for his past work educating students on constitutional issues.
"It shouldn’t have happened," Leidiger said.
Boyne distributed a copy of a letter to Dean from the House Chief Clerk’s office asking that opening prayers be "interfaith and ecumenical" and that they should not be "advocating a political position on issues or ideologies."
Dean’s prayer openly flouted that request.
"I know this is a non-denominational prayer in this chamber," Dean said in his prayer, which he delivered from the front of the House chamber clad in a shiny track suit. He then recited a litany of Christian denominations and said he was not advocating any of those faiths, "but rather the head of the denomination and his name is Jesus. As every president up until 2008 has acknowledged."
In a phone interview, Dean said he did not know before he got to the Capitol on Friday morning that gay marriage was on the agenda. He insisted his prayer was not meant to be provocative and he criticized Zellers for "bending when a little heat comes his way."
Dean noted that most of his prayer was about veterans, the U.S. Constitution and the nation’s forefathers. He did not disavow previous comments about gay people but stressed that his prayer Friday did not raise those issues.
"I said a prayer," Dean said. "I didn’t say a word about the homosexual community, not a thing."
Dean also denied that his remark about "every president up until 2008" was intended as a slight on Obama, but wouldn’t say why he mentioned the year Obama was elected.
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, has been one of the Legislature’s loudest critics of the gay marriage amendment. He said he hoped Friday’s flap would undermine its progress at the Capitol.
"I’m hopeful people see there’s a lot of hate behind this and decide not to bring up the amendment," Marty said.