ST. PAUL - Many of the hundreds who rallied Thursday to support legalizing same-sex marriage in Minnesota said they think it can happen this year.

"We have come this far and are this close," Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, told those gathered outside the state Capitol building in the sleet. Dibble, who is gay, said he believes the state can and should approve the bill legalizing same-sex marriage.

"It is time for our government to stop denying some Minnesotans the freedom to marry the person they love simply because of who they are," he said.

Bills legalizing same-sex marriage, including Dibble's, have made their way through committees and are waiting to come before the full House and Senate.

Speakers at the rally encouraged attendees to push lawmakers to support the change.

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Some opponents say the bill will infringe on religious rights.

"If marriage is redefined in civil law, individuals and religious organizations - regardless of deeply held beliefs - will be compelled to treat same-sex unions as the equivalent of marriage in their lives, ministries and operations," a group of religious leaders wrote in a letter to lawmakers and the governor.

Gov. Mark Dayton said all people have a right to be married. He said the effort to offer a compromise in civil unions is not the same.

"People don't want to be 'civil unioned,' " Dayton said. "They want to be married."

Democrat leaders have said they want to set the state budget before tackling policy issues, such as marriage.

Cigarette tax rally

About 300 Minnesotans rallied in the state Capitol Thursday, asking lawmakers to increase the cigarette tax.

"The health of our kids is too important to gamble on smoking," Dayton told the crowd. "The best thing we can do for them is to help keep them from starting, and raising the price of tobacco will do just that."

Dayton proposed a 94-cent-per-pack increase and some legislators want an increase of up to $3.60. But owners of border-city stores say they fear a high tax will drive customers to adjoining states that charge less.

The issue will be settled next month when House and Senate tax negotiators meet with Dayton's staff to figure out a final tax plan.

The Raise it for Health coalition of Minnesota health and nonprofit organizations planned the Thursday rally.

Coalition leaders said a $1.50 per-pack increase in the tobacco tax would prevent 47,700 Minnesota kids from becoming addicted adults, help 36,600 Minnesotans quit tobacco and save 27,700 Minnesotans from premature smoking-related deaths.

Class before Labor Day?

Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, successfully changed the House education funding bill to prohibit Minnesota schools from starting before Labor Day.

He said businesses and organizations such as the State Fair say an earlier start would hurt tourism.

Republicans and Democrats supported the amendment. Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said farmers could use the extra time, as well.

"Last year, they were farming until October," he said.

Others said teachers and districts are asking for earlier starts to make sure students retain more information.

"We already spend the first six weeks of the school year getting students back to where they were at the end of the school year," said Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato.

The bill still could change as it makes its way through the Legislature, including debate by the full House.

Senate OKs memorial

Senators unanimously approved a bill to allow a Minnesota American Indian veterans memorial plaque to be placed in the Capitol grounds' court of honor.

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, authored the bill, saying it would help Minnesotans "express appreciation for all the service American Indians from Minnesota have given to the state and to the country in the military."

Skoe said American Indians serve in the military at a higher percentage than the general population.

The American Indian community will pay for the plaque, Skoe said.