By David Bailey
ST. PAUL, Minnesota (Reuters) - Minnesota's Senate on Monday approved a bill that would make Minnesota the 12th U.S. state to allow same-sex couples to marry and only the second in the Midwest, advancing it to the governor, who said he would sign it on Tuesday.
The Democratic-controlled state Senate voted 37-30 to pass the bill legalizing gay marriage, putting Minnesota on the verge of becoming the third state in the nation to approve same-sex nuptials in May after Rhode Island and Delaware.
Minnesota's House approved the bill last week and Democratic Governor Mark Dayton said he would sign it into law on Tuesday in a ceremony on the steps of the Capitol. It will take effect on August 1.
Minnesota joins Iowa as the only other Midwestern state to permit gay marriage and will be the first to do so through legislation. Iowa has permitted same-sex marriage since 2009 under a state Supreme Court order.
After the vote, Senator Scott Dibble, the lead Senate sponsor, said supporters of the bill needed "to go forward with grace and understanding of the people who were on the other side of this issue."
"To the extent that there is divisiveness, we can bridge those differences," said Dibble, who married his spouse, Richard Leyva, in California in 2008.
The Minnesota House had been expected to be the bigger hurdle, but representatives voted 75-59 on Thursday to approve a bill with some Republican support.
The votes were a sharp reversal for Minnesota's legislature. Two years ago, Republicans controlled both chambers and bypassed the governor to put forward a ballot measure that would have made the state's current ban on gay marriage part of the state constitution.
Minnesota voters in November rejected that measure and also voted in Democratic majorities in both the state House and Senate, setting the legislature on the path toward Monday's vote.
Opponents of the bill have questioned whether the rights of religious groups and individuals who believe marriage should be only between one man and one woman would be protected. They also questioned the speed with which the measure was being approved.
Republican Senator Warren Limmer, a sponsor of the proposed amendment two years ago, has said the legislation will change how businesses work, clergy speak from the pulpit and school curriculums are shaped.
OPPONENTS SEE 'SLIPPERY SLOPE'
Republican Senator Torrey Westrom said on Monday the bill could lead to unintended consequences.
"The question that can't be answered is if marriage is about marrying who you love, where does that stop?" Westrom asked. "Our statute has several other restrictions on who can get married, but if the premise is that you should be able to marry who you love, that is a slippery slope."
The debate brought hundreds of demonstrators to the Capitol both for and against the bill.
Linda Sevlie, 69, of Coon Rapids, said she went to oppose the bill and "to support traditional marriage, one man-one woman, and to pray for our senators who are voting today."
Hundreds of supporters of extending marriage rights to same-sex couples rallied afterward, including Jessica Flatequal and Maria Bevacqua, who have been together 10 years.
"It recognizes our citizenship, it recognizes our dignity and love as a couple," Flatequal said.
When asked if they were planning to get married, Flatequal said: "We haven't gotten to that point yet. Nobody has proposed today, but the day is still young."
Voters in more than two dozen states have approved state constitutional provisions that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. But in the past year, gay rights advocates won a series of victories.
In November, Maine, Maryland and Washington state became the first states to approve same-sex marriage at the ballot box.
Same-sex marriage is also legal in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Vermont and New Hampshire. The District of Columbia also has legalized same-sex marriage.
Illinois state senators approved a bill in February, but the measure has not been voted on in the full House.
(Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Tim Gaynor, Philip Barbara and Eric Beech)