Meet Edina's Hometown Heroes

Edina is made up of people who pride themselves with making the city a great place for living, learning, raising families and doing business.

Lee Anderson & William Fehrenbach

Few legal contracts are as common or as deep-seated in American society as the institution of marriage. And few are as easy to take for granted – unless the rights and responsibilities inherit in marriage are conspicuously denied to you. Regrettably, until very recently, this was the reality for same-sex couples in Minnesota.

As civil rights advocate and Edina native Lee Anderson can tell you, the distinction under the law is not a trivial one. “Many laws related to marriage are there to protect spouses at the worst times of their lives: death, hospitalization, disability or financial hardship.” In states where gay marriage is not recognized, same-sex spouses often have little or no legal say in their significant other’s medical treatment decisions. Moreover, in the event of the worst, same-sex spouses are not afforded the same burial rights and estate protections and privileges of a heterosexual spouse in the same situation.

Anderson’s husband, William Fehrenbach, is all too familiar with this legal inequality. In June 2012, Anderson sustained a serious head injury in a bicycling accident, rendering him unconscious. First responders notified Fehrenbach that they were taking him to the Hennepin County Medical Center. “Despite being legally recognized as married elsewhere, and despite having every paper possible signed, I was unsure if I would even be let in to see Lee, much less to say goodbye if necessary... You see, he was a legal stranger to me,” Fehrenbach explained.

Fortunately, Anderson recovered quickly from what ended up being a relatively minor injury. Even so, the episode underscored and reaffirmed the couple’s life-standing mission to see marriage equality extended to all committed couples in Minnesota, regardless of orientation.

If their civil rights campaigning can be dated back to any one point, it is to 2004, when Minnesota lawmakers introduced the first of several constitutional amendment proposals proscribing gay marriage. Anderson and Fehrenbach found the heated legislative discussion not only distressing, but very much at odds with the Minnesota they knew. Fortuitously, both had extensive professional experience in government affairs, and “had an inkling of what might be good next steps … to change the debate around same-sex couples,” Anderson said.

Pulling inspiration from an ambitious and well-received awareness campaign in Maryland, Anderson assembled a team of volunteer legal professionals from William Mitchell College of Law to comb through all of Minnesota law and log each and every statute that discriminates against same-sex couples “by conferring rights, benefits or obligations” on opposite-sex married couples while excluding their same-sex counterparts.

By the end of the process, the team had identified 515 such citable cases. Fehrenbach saw in the number a convenient and poignant symbol of what they were fighting for. Shortly thereafter, when the growing group’s advocacy efforts coalesced into a 501(c)4 organization aimed at righting these injustices, he suggested they call it “Project 515.”

In the years since, Project 515 and its volunteers have become a leading voice in the long fight to see marriage equality come to Minnesota. The organization’s most conspicuous efforts are in the important realms of government advocacy and community education.

Project 515’s efforts at the Capitol first bore fruit in 2009, when the state legislature approved a bill allowing same-sex spouses to file wrongful death claims. “While the Governor vetoed it, it generated a sharp response. The Star-Tribune even ran a feature editorial against the veto. That helped people recognize that this was an issue that must be addressed,” Anderson remembered. That same year, Project 515 helped pass a change in Minnesota’s Medicaid lien law protecting families from the threat of losing their home when one same-sex spouse enrolls in Medicaid.

The group’s government advocacy culminated in 2012 and 2013, with the final push for full marriage equality followed closely on the heels of the defeat of the Minnesota Marriage Amendment aimed at restricting marriage to one man/one woman.

“The 2012 election felt like a ‘big hug’ from Minnesota,” Anderson said.

Achieving Project 515’s first and greatest goal in such a short time was made possible only through a groundswell of public support in favor of a definitive end to discriminative treatment. Anderson and Fehrenbach can attribute with pride a portion of that support to Project 515’s own devoted volunteers and far-reaching education programs.

In addition to hard campaigning in the metro, proponents visited with city committees, school boards, and everyday residents across the state to share both their legal research and heart-wrenching real-life stories of Minnesota families impacted by those statutes. Several even formed a traveling theatre troupe, the “515 Players,” to give audiences an artistic but approachable portrayal of the issue and what is at stake.

Not surprisingly, the Project 515 team has garnered its fair share of accolades over the year, including a nod to Anderson and former Executive Director Laura Smidzik as Lavender Magazine’s 2009 “People of the Year.” By far and away, though, Anderson and Fehrenbach (who first tied the knot in Minnesota in a religious ceremony in 1998, and have since legally married in several U.S. states and in Canada) feel that the best possible validation of their efforts came on Aug. 1, 2013, when their legal marriage was finally recognized in their beloved home state.

15 of 39  Heroes

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