The two sides slugging it out over the marriage amendment took their battle to the pews Tuesday, with both sides making bold, public pleas to people of faith.

Minnesotans United for All Families took direct aim at the Catholic Church's support of the amendment, with a kickoff television ad featuring a Catholic couple urging Minnesotans to reject the measure. At the same time, Twin Cities Catholic Archbishop John Nienstedt joined about 40 other faith leaders at the Capitol to encourage support for the marriage amendment.

The two events signal a new phase of a campaign that already is among the most expensive and contentious of the state's election season.

Both campaigns have been working for months to build coalitions in places of worship, among business leaders and through public rallies. The duel of the TV ad and high-profile media event on the Capitol steps takes the discussion into homes statewide, giving advocates a chance to speak to voters who might have ignored early season efforts.

Minnesotans United for All Families' first ad features a Catholic couple from Savage who say their position on same-sex marriage has evolved and that they now oppose the measure.

"We know that for Minnesotans to vote no on Election Day we need to encourage them to have conversations and take a journey that many other people in the state and country have taken about gay and lesbian freedom to marry," said Richard Carlbom, campaign manager for Minnesotans United. "We need to show Minnesotans how to go from conflicted or concerned to a 'no' vote."

Nienstedt, in a rare public declaration on the issue, offered a brief statement: "I ask all Minnesotans to join us to vote yes on November 6th. ... This is a wonderful sight, to see clergy from ... so many different churches come together and show their support for our basic understanding of marriage as a union between one man and one woman." Nienstedt took no questions and left after reading the statement.

Minnesota for Marriage, the lead group pushing the measure, is scheduled to air its first TV ad Oct. 1. The ads will lay out why the group believes the institution of marriage is worth preserving, what it sees as the threat to marriage and what is at stake should it be redefined.

'Ours to win'

Frank Schubert, the California-based political strategist running Minnesota for Marriage, said the other side has been having conversations for nearly two years yet still acknowledges in public that they would lose if the election were held today.

"What are they going to say in the final seven weeks that they haven't said the last 18 months?" Schubert asked. "The answer is nothing. This election is ours to win."

Marriage amendment supporters in others states have funneled much of their money into a last-minute barrage of emotional and successful television advertisements -- many created by Schubert. The ads have warned that without the measure, students could be taught about same-sex marriage in elementary schools.

Minnesotans United has spent months dissecting Schubert's strategy and ads in other states. Carlbom said they are bracing for "the most divisive and hurtful ads ever in the state" and are preparing to push back strongly on the airwaves should those ads surface.

Minnesota law already outlaws same-sex marriage, but supporters argue the measure is necessary to prevent judges or future legislatures from changing the law. Like in other states that have dealt with the issue, marriage amendment supporters are trailing in fundraising, but many polls show the measure barely passing or close to it.

Carlbom vowed that with this first ad, the group will remain on the air across Minnesota through Election Day. Fretting over an expected late blitz from the other side, Minnesotans United has already locked in $1.3 million of airtime for the last week of the campaign. That's in addition to nearly $500,000 they are spending on their first ad.

That 30-second spot features John and Kim Canny, lifelong Republicans and Catholics, who talk about how their position on marriage evolved as the couple spent 13 years raising their children in Savage.

When a gay couple moved into their neighborhood with an adopted son, the Cannys say in the ad, they realized same-sex couples want to marry to make a lifetime commitment based on love and responsibility -- the same reasons that drove the Cannys to take their wedding vows. The Canny family "had some good discussions," John Canny said. "In our daughter's world, her normal is so much different than ours. It didn't faze her at all."

The ad ends with Kim Canny encouraging Minnesotans to continue wrestling with the issue. "And when you do," John Canny chimes in, "vote no."

The ad is not the first of the marriage amendment fight. A month ago, Freedom to Marry, a national group pushing for states to approve same-sex marriage, launched TV ads featuring Yvonne and Fred Peterson of Duluth. The couple discussed their 59-year marriage and how they came to support same-sex marriage after learning their grandson is gay.

'Essential public purpose'

Religious leaders at the Capitol on Tuesday urged residents thinking about the amendment to consult the Bible, not pop culture or shifting societal norms.

"This gift of marriage is given to us by God to create a loving and secure bond between husband and wife, where they can share the deepest emotions and the most joyful pleasures of physical intimacy," said Carl Nelson, president of Transform Minnesota, a network of nearly 160 evangelical churches in Minnesota. "Marriage bonds a mother and father to any children that may be born to their union and creates a stable and loving family. This is the essential public purpose of marriage and the reason why we support the marriage amendment."

Schubert was in a Twin Cities hotel room Tuesday putting the finishing touches on his plan for the final weeks of the campaign when the other side released its ad. Amendment opponents' ads miss the point, said Schubert -- that marriage is a unique relationship between a man and a woman.

"It is not something you leave to children based on their norm, and it is not something you change because you have nice gay neighbors," Schubert said. "Almost all of them are wonderful people who deserve to be loved and respected. But we don't need to redefine marriage to respect our gay and lesbian neighbors."

Staff writer Rose French contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044