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Four pastors hold hands in a circle inside the State Capitol, asking for heavenly guidance in the task before them — lobbying.
The evangelical leaders have come to urge legislators to vote no on legalizing same-sex marriage in Minnesota.
“We feel like we’re not being heard,” said Jim Goodew, a pastor from Brainerd who has been bringing groups down to St. Paul. “So a practical thing is we come down and meet with our representatives, our senators. It doesn’t mean they always agree with us … If they’re like-minded, we thank them for their service. If they’re not like-minded, we try to talk with them about why we think this is an important and far-reaching issue.”
This quieter, more behind-the-scenes approach by religious leaders is nothing like the heated public debate over the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage defeated by Minnesota voters in November.
With the vote expected soon, some lawmakers have noticed the difference — particularly the lower profile of the Catholic Church, which spent the most money of any single religious group in the state, about $650,000 — to support the amendment.
Faith leaders on both sides of the issue say that’s because the audience is different. This time they don’t have to persuade some 1.5 million voters on a referendum. Instead, their focus is the individual lawmakers, who will decide the issue.
Sen. Scott Dibble, a chief sponsor of the marriage measure, said it’s tough to know exactly how hard the Catholic leadership is working to defeat the bill, but their efforts are more muted than they were a year ago when Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt made a rare public appearance to lead a Capitol rally of faith leaders in favor of the marriage amendment.
Nienstedt has made no such appearances during the legislative fight. When he met privately with Gov. Mark Dayton in March, he did not specifically address the marriage issue, according to Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the main lobbying arm for the state’s bishops.
“I think the archbishop himself is taking a little bit of a powder,” said Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis. “I think he got pretty well clipped by the results of the election.”
Catholics not ‘one-issue’
DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, who is being counted on to wrangle votes for the marriage measure, met with several Catholic bishops about two months ago. They talked about the need to address homelessness and health care but never discussed the marriage issue.
“They never raised it,” said Bakk, DFL-Cook. “They just said, ‘You know how we feel.’ But they never pressed me.”
The church’s agenda goes beyond the marriage amendment, said Adkins.
“I would say the marriage issue has been about 20 percent of our time this session,” he said. But he added, “A lot happens behind the scenes, of course.”
Money is a factor, he said. “We raised money and did a bunch of outreach initiatives related to the amendment. Those resources are no longer there.
“We’re not a one-issue organization. We advocate on all kinds of issues related to the common good. Limited resources require balancing a lot of different balls in the air … I’d love to have more resources to be able to engage and advocate. But that’s just what we’ve got.”
He said the Catholic Church is still active on the issue and pointed to a letter signed by the bishops and more than a dozen leaders of other faiths asking lawmakers to vote against legalizing same-sex marriage. Catholic leaders across the state are encouraging the faithful to contact their legislators to urge them to vote no.
‘We’re still advocating’
With a DFL-controlled Legislature and a governor who supports gay marriage, religious opponents acknowledge they face an uphill battle.
But people haven’t given up, said Autumn Leva, a spokeswoman for Minnesota for Marriage, the main group working to defeat the legislation. Their March rally at the Capitol attracted close to 1,000 people, she said.
She said evangelical leaders in particular, like Goodew, have stepped up.
“I think a lot of them were pretty upset the marriage amendment lost. I think they were surprised and are engaging more,” she said.
“This time around, I think folks realize it’s a little bit out of their hands; the Legislature will be voting on it, not every [voter]. That it’s really going to end up being a handful of legislators making the decision.”
Key votes are likely to come from DFLers who represent more conservative rural constituents. Carl Nelson, president of Transform Minnesota, a network of nearly 160 evangelical churches, says he knows of a number of evangelical pastors who have reached out to legislators.
“We are committed to promoting marriage and healthy relationships,” Nelson said. “We’re going to continue doing that. In terms of our organization in Minnesota, we haven’t given up, in a sense saying it’s inevitable. We’re still advocating.”
National polls show increasing support for gay marriage. Yet a recent Star Tribune Minnesota Poll showed that about 53 percent of respondents don’t favor legalizing same-sex marriage.
Proponents quiet, too
On the other side of the issue, Minnesotans United for All Families held a rally April 18 but is doing most of its work behind the scenes.
“This time around, we’re doing much more kind of targeted work where we’re reaching out to people of faith … and asking them to have really powerful conversations with these decisionmakers,” said Javen Swanson, associate director of organizing for faith for Minnesotans United.
November’s fight over the marriage amendment has brought change for both the winning and losing sides, said John Green, a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, who studies politics and religion.
“Not only did they lose the amendment, but … the Legislature became democratic,” Green said.
“They tend to go back to the drawing board. Is this our most important issue? How can we try to influence? Should we abandon this? There is a moment of chastening. And that’s happened on both sides.”