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In the midst of the celebration about same-sex marriage, some Minnesotans are quietly mourning.
They are ordinary parishioners, neighbors down the street, co-workers in the elevator who steadfastly believe that marriage is meant solely for a man and a woman.
“I can’t say we’re bitter,” said Tom O’Neill of Eagan. “We’re disappointed. It’s people saying, ‘If it’s good for me, I don’t care about anyone else.’ There’s nothing that’s intrinsically evil anymore.”
“To me, the moral compass is disintegrating,” added his wife, Mary. “Not just changing — disintegrating.”
The O’Neills are among several Minnesotans who were willing to talk about being caught in the undertow of a wave of social change, illustrated by the legalization of gay marriage starting Thursday. All hew to the ethic of “hate the sin, love the sinner.”
If anything, their sadness is less directed toward this particular issue than to the moral erosion of society in general. For them, same-sex marriage is the most recent straw on a teetering pile of hollow chaff.
“When this happens to people of faith, we have one staunch and true anchor to secure ourselves in storms: our faithful savior, Jesus Christ,” said Naomi Jirele of Medford, Minn. “Personally, I seem to get even stronger in my commitment, more focused on how he is showing me to walk out each day in love and wisdom.”
“We feel privileged to have faith,” said Ceil Schommer of Mendota Heights.
They believe their views represent the majority of Minnesotans and Americans. Yet many polls mark a slow but steadily growing acceptance of same-sex marriage.
Same-sex marriage now will be legal in 13 states and the District of Columbia, Minnesota being the most recent. In a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll from February, 38 percent thought legislators should change the law to allow such unions. By June, that figure had risen to 46 percent. Nationally, a May Gallup Poll shows a slim majority supporting gay marriage.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that married same-sex couples deserve the same federal benefits as other married couples.
Then there’s the related factor that marriage itself is becoming less common. In the United States, marriage rates have been steadily falling since the 1970s, while the number of cohabiting couples has risen to a high of 7.5 million in 2010.
Such shifts are enough to cause Schommer to say, perplexedly, “All the people who can get married want to live together, and people who can’t get married want to marry.”
Faith, more than politics
The O’Neills and the Schommers are members of the Church of St. Peter in Mendota. While many Republicans oppose the legalization of gay marriage, they took pains to explain that they’re not lockstep conservatives. They think Rush Limbaugh is more bombastic entertainer than serious commentator, that Sean Hannity is far too apocalyptic to be taken seriously. Kurian Cherucheril of Mendota Heights, also a member of St. Peter, emigrated from India in 1968 and said he disagrees with GOP stances on some social issues, notably immigration.
Their concerns aren’t so much political as cultural. Mel Schommer, Ceil’s husband, regrets how language is growing devalued, noting how “love” is used so casually these days. “People say they love their cat or love their dog,” he said. “The word ‘love’ has lost its meaning.”
With a slight quaver, he added that he and Ceil have a son who is gay. He lives in New York and they speak occasionally, he said. Yet that distance, as emotional as it is physical, has a further component.
“He also told us he’s an atheist,” Ceil said, then sighed deeply. “That’s what hurt.”
Mary O’Neill put the issue of gay marriage in an even sharper moral perspective: “We’re sad, but abortion is a far more serious issue,” she said firmly.
Many in the group said they are angry with legislators who voted same-sex marriage into law. But they feel utterly betrayed by those politicians who, during the run-up to the November election, downplayed the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage as redundant because of the existing state law against such unions.
“I thought it was so dishonest the way it was promoted,” said Keith Stanton of Mendota Heights. “They said this will change nothing. They said they wouldn’t [change the law.]”
Crosses to bear
What hurts them most about seeing society change around them? Being called bigots, they said. Feeling forced to accept something they believe is wrong.
“I have to accept that there are crosses in life,” Cherucheril said. “After all, you are following someone who died on a cross, who carried a cross. What do you expect in life? You will carry a cross at times. Yet we are people of hope.”
Jirele, who considers herself nondenominational, said in an e-mail that no one has crowed to her about the law being repealed.
“Many of my homosexual friends have been very respectful toward me since the vote,” she said. “I have very high concern for each of them as individuals of whom I care, but I also know that you cannot talk straight talk to a stone wall, a clogged faucet, a distracted dog or a misplaced wrench.
“Good news is only good news if the hearer hears it as good news. So I pray and wait — wait for an opportunity to share at a time that finds a friend with listening ears and open heart.”
Far from folding up camp, these proponents of traditional marriage say they intend to continue quietly bearing witness to their faith.
“I’ve been asked, ‘Don’t you think anyone can determine the truth of the Bible on their own?’ ” Tom O’Neill said. “No. Because then everyone would be their own church.”
Nancy Stanton, who with Keith is a member of St. Peter, said she won’t stop speaking up. “I know it’s the law, but I’m entitled to feel the way I do. This just stirs a pot of muddy water like you wouldn’t believe.”
Persuading others to regard marriage as they do isn’t getting any easier, she added, what with the pace at which society moves these days. People scan news stories, get sound bites from TV, converse via text messages and generally always seem on the run.
“There’s no deep thinking anymore,” she said. “No way to sit down and fully think through an issue.”