Barb and Bob Sanders are staunch, decadelong churchgoers at St. Barnabas, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, whose leaders champion gay rights and openly oppose the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

And that's a problem for the Sanderses. Their church leaders say to vote no, but their Bible tells them marriage is the union of a man and a woman -- only.

They say they have wrestled with the issue. "We have friends with gay children and we've known them since those kids were young and ... they're still our friends," said Barb Sanders, 72, of Maple Grove. "We would do anything for them. It's just we do not ... understand or don't like their [gay] lifestyle. And we don't think that is the way God created us, intended for us to live."

The Sanderses are emblematic of the complex and often deeply personal conundrum many Minnesotans are encountering as they weigh the marriage amendment, forced to make a decision that may conflict with their own church's stance.

They have decided to vote for the amendment -- a decision their pastor, the Rev. Wayne Peterson, says he will not try to sway.

"Out here in the west suburbs, I have members who are very conservative Republican," Peterson said of his Plymouth church. "I have members who are very liberal Democrat," Peterson said. "And we try to foster an ... atmosphere here where we can disagree with each other on those things but still worship together as part of the same church."

Peterson says his congregation of nearly 900 members is divided over the amendment, which is why he steers clear of the issue when preaching from the pulpit.

"We're trying to fight this current trend in our country where people are choosing their church based on their political alliances rather than what the theology or worship is," he said. In a March newsletter to the congregation, Peterson noted that ELCA members "are not of one mind on issues of sexuality."

The debate over same-sex unions is not a new one for the ELCA. Nationwide, some 600 congregations have left the denomination since a controversial policy change in 2009 that allowed for openly gay and lesbian pastors in committed relationships to serve as clergy in the faith.

On the marriage amendment specifically, Peterson said: "There are members of my congregation who will vote for and against it. They will do so with conviction and integrity. And I think that's the proper approach."

Over the past year, all six ELCA bishops in Minnesota have publicly come out against the amendment, which they view as denying equal treatment to same-sex couples. Representatives with all but one of the six ELCA synods in the state have voted against the amendment. The second-largest religious denomination in the state, the ELCA has close to 800,000 members in Minnesota.

The Sanderses acknowledge they are at loggerheads with ELCA bishops over the marriage amendment, but they say they can still be fervent followers of the faith, secure in the knowledge that differing views are welcomed at St. Barnabas.

"Overall, when we go to a church service on Sunday morning, people don't start talking about that issue," Barb Sanders said. "I've only had one gal come up to me and was in opposition to how I felt. If that's how she felt, then OK, that's your opinion and this is mine. That's the end of it."

The Sanderses, who have been married 51 years, are the parents of three grown children and grandparents to nine grandchildren. They say they have maintained longstanding friendships with couples who have gay children, even after other acquaintances in their social circle snubbed those parents.

"If it's in your heart to vote against it, you should follow that, if that's what you believe," Barb Sanders said. "We happen to believe the other way, that it's between a man and woman. But we would never want to lose a friendship over it."

Nor are they willing to lose their church. Like others who disagree with the denomination's policies on sexuality, they choose to stay in the ELCA because of the mission and charitable work it does, helping to fight hunger, homelessness and other social ills.

"We just looked at the whole picture and figured, 'OK, we lost one,'" Barb Sanders said. "But overall, we're in it for the long haul. I just have no qualms with ELCA whatsoever, except that my own personal belief is marriage is between a man and woman."

Bob Sanders, 72, echoed that sentiment and added one of his own:

"God created Adam and Eve. Not Adam and John," he said. "If they want to live their lifestyle, it doesn't bother us until you force me to vote yes or no on it."

Rose French • 612-673-4352