A political sea change at the State Capitol has emboldened conservative religious groups, who believe they'll have the support to get on the 2012 ballot a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between a man and woman. A bill to end taxpayer-funded abortions is also expected to get more traction now that Republicans control both houses of the Legislature.

But on Thursday, another religious group was in St. Paul, pressing a different agenda. Nearly 900 members of one of Minnesota's largest religious advocacy groups, the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, observed the group's annual Day on the Hill to lobby legislators on issues like universal health care, increasing the minimum wage and other initiatives dealing with poverty and vulnerable groups.

For both sides, the state's $6.2 billion budget deficit will be a factor.

"I think clearly the budget is the top priority," said Tom Prichard, president of the Christian-based Minnesota Family Council, which favors the amendment banning gay marriage. "We've argued there will also be time to address other issues. I don't think it precludes dealing with the marriage amendment or other issues."

Brian Rusche, executive director of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, is encouraged by Gov. Mark Dayton's budget calling for a $4 billion tax increase on the state's wealthiest 5 percent. But he criticized the $775 million in cuts for health and welfare programs and stressed that some 7,200 adults would lose MinnesotaCare coverage, state-subsidized health care for the working poor.

He's concerned that Republican opposition to the tax may lead to more cuts in programs that help the needy. "We will do what we can to help hold [Dayton's] position," Rusche said.

Republican response to base

Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said Republicans could make headway on some social issues this session, but there are some risks.

"Republican leaders will have to weigh whether or not it's important to be responsive to a vocal and mobilized part of the Republican base or if they ... want to open themselves up to criticism that they're not focusing on the main issues of the economy and jobs," she said.

Minnesota is far from alone. At least 35 states are forecasting budget deficits for fiscal year 2012, and programs for the needy are on the chopping block.

Other states also are considering constitutional amendments protecting traditional marriage. This year so far, Indiana and Wyoming are weighing such amendments.

In Minnesota, bills pushing for a state amendment banning gay marriage began to be introduced in 2004 but ran into opposition from DFL leaders. Amendment supporters now believe this could be the year it's green-lighted. A majority vote in the House and Senate is needed for its passage, and it does not require the governor's approval.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference is again joining the Minnesota Family Council in pressing for the marriage amendment. Both groups say they're close to getting a sponsor for a bill to bring it forth.

"We just think it's appropriate to let the people vote, and not having it decided by the courts or even the Legislature," Prichard said.

Past attempts to get a law ending taxpayer-funded abortions in Minnesota have not been able to get a committee hearing, said Bill Poehler, spokesman for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, which has a large number of Christian members. But with the new leadership, he said, "We're hoping we'll be able to have hearings in the House and Senate in the coming weeks. ... We're hopeful there will be action and movement."

After listening to Dayton's speech Thursday to the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, Rick Todd and other coalition members headed to meet with legislators from their districts. Todd, a deacon at St. John in the Wilderness Episcopal Church in North Branch, said doing charity work is important, but seeking out lawmakers is crucial, too.

"I need to come here to fix the system," he said. "We have to fix the problems at the source."

Rose French • 612-673-4352