Minnesota business leaders increasingly are in the cross hairs of what has become the election season's hottest issue -- a proposed amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

The business community is being viewed -- and viewing itself -- as an influential force that could provide crucial momentum in what is likely to be a nail-biter election in Minnesota.

"What business can do with credibility is talk about how a welcoming, diverse state can improve the state's economy," said Tom Horner, a public affairs consultant and opponent of the marriage amendment. With so much national focus on jobs and the economy, business leaders' front-line expertise "gives them a powerful story to tell," he said.

That has both sides on the issue in a fevered scramble to reach out to business leaders in every corner of Minnesota. Over the phone, at lunch, by mail or over cocktails, amendment opponents are pressing business leaders to take a public stand against it -- the kind of stand that can bring waves of scorn, protests and unwanted attention.

But that is a risk some of them are willing to take. Already some of the state's largest corporations, such as General Mills, have positioned themselves firmly on the side of amendment opponents.

"Diversity is a business necessity," said John Taft, CEO of RBC Wealth Management and a leader in the effort to recruit executives to oppose the marriage amendment. "The world is becoming more diverse. If companies don't do diversity well, they won't succeed in the future."

'Not a business issue'

Amendment supporters, fearing a deluge of high-profile business opposition, is leaning just as hard on business to sit this one out. They boycotted General Mills when it came out against the amendment and recently sent sharply worded letters to Minnesota business groups, warning them that they are closely watching companies that take a stand.

"Marriage is a cultural issue, not a business issue," said Jonathan Baker with the National Organization for Marriage. "We simply ask them to remain neutral."

Consumers' strong loyalty to brands and companies often make businesses reliable indicators in the shifting winds of the mainstream. Chick-fil-A, a chicken sandwich chain more popular in the South but with a few franchises here, touched off a national firestorm of controversy when its president declared that same-sex marriage was "inviting God's judgment." Franchises across the country were filled with supporters on "Chick-fil-A Day" while gay rights activists organized "kiss-ins" at others.

Last week, Capella University, a private online university headquartered in Minneapolis, announced it will oppose the marriage amendment. The university joined St. Jude Medical and the local division of Thomson Reuters.

On Nov. 6, Minnesota voters will make the final judgment on whether the state's constitution will recognize only marriages between a man and a woman. Same-sex marriage is already illegal in the state, but supporters believe the measure is necessary to prevent judges and future legislators from redefining marriage.

Amendment opponents have made business recruitment a key component of their campaigns, nowhere more so than in Minnesota. They say the endorsements of their stand by companies and high-profile business leaders can reassure voters thinking about siding with them.

"Over time, we want Americans to see themselves fitting into an assortment of folks from all walks of life who support same-sex marriage," said Fred Sainz, a spokesman with the Human Rights Campaign.

Frank Schubert, the political strategist running Minnesota for Marriage, the lead group pushing the marriage amendment, dismissed the vote-swaying influence of business leaders.

"I don't think endorsements from businesses are key to the outcome," Schubert said. "Endorsements rally people who already agree, they don't convince anyone. Our opponents always chock up endorsement because it's the PC thing to do, yet they have never won."

Letter 'not well received'

Nevertheless, the National Organization for Marriage is pressing the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and other business groups to stay on the sidelines.

"We are carefully watching what the Chamber and its members do on this important measure, with the expectation that you will not be engaged on one side or the other," National Organization for Marriage's Baker wrote to the chamber. "Please let us know if this is not the case."

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce president David Olson said the letter was "pretty point blank."

"It was not well received," Olson said. "Several board members thought it was way out of line."

The chamber has taken no formal position on the amendment. Many of the state's most prominent companies are sitting out, too. Target Corp., Best Buy and Cargill have decided not to take a stand.

"At the heart of our company are core values which include Target's long-standing commitment to create an environment where all of our team members and guests feel welcome, valued and respected," said Molly Snyder, a Target spokeswoman.

Target has had a complex relationship with the gay and lesbian community. In 2010, it touched off a boycott and weeks of scorn from gays and lesbians when it donated $150,000 to a group supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. But more recently, the retailer sold gay pride attire online and now sells greeting cards for gay and lesbian couples.

"We recognize that there is a broad range of strongly held views on the Minnesota marriage amendment," Snyder said. "We strongly encourage our team members to exercise their right to vote in November."

Some leaders of high-profile companies are getting involved personally.

Cargill executives have hosted fundraisers for Minnesotans United for All Families, the lead group opposing the amendment. Cargill's CEO, Greg Page, donated $1,000 to the group. Ecolab CEO Doug Baker contributed $500.

Some companies have weighed in more subtly.

The Minnesota Twins, in cooperation with JB Hudson Jewelers, ran a contest this year offering a free wedding ceremony at home plate at Target Field. The five couples to emerge as finalists included a lesbian couple. All couples appeared at the stadium, on local television programs and waged extensive social media campaigns.

Fan reaction?

"Not a peep," Twins spokesman Kevin Smith said. "Nobody said a word."

The Twins and JB Hudson Jewelers are owned by the Pohlad family. Combined, the family has donated at least $305,000 to the effort to defeat the marriage amendment.

Not yielding to pressure

Some businesses strayed into the issue by accident.

Jake Barnes, a 25-year-old law student in Minneapolis, and his partner planned to get married in Iowa, where same-sex marriage is legal, and then hold a reception at Breezy Point in northern Minnesota. After planning a reception worth thousands of dollars, Barnes canceled when he found out the resort was hosting a fundraiser by a group supporting the amendment.

"I really, really believe that this proposed amendment is not good law," Barnes said. "They were going to take my money and then turn around and host an event that would want to make sure our marriage was never recognized."

Breezy Point spokesman George Rasmusson sent Barnes an e-mail outlining the challenges of trying to accommodate both sides. "We will not cancel the marriage protection amendment fundraiser," Rasmusson wrote. "Conversely, we would not succumb to pressure from others to cancel the wedding of you and your partner at our resort."

Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044