Two key conservative evangelical leaders in Minnesota are not endorsing the marriage amendment or directing followers to vote for it, marking the first time during debate over the measure that major faith leaders have not encouraged members to take a stand on the issue.

Influential preacher and theologian the Rev. John Piper came out against gay marriage during a sermon Sunday but did not explicitly urge members of his Minneapolis church to vote for the amendment.

The Rev. Leith Anderson, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's longtime pastor, also said this week he does not plan to take a public side on the amendment, which would change the state Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Religious observers say the lack of formal backing from the two influential figures could signal that evangelical leaders in Minnesota are taking a less active role in supporting the amendment -- a marked departure from evangelicals in dozens of other states where similar amendments have passed.

"Don't press the organization of the church or her pastors into political activism," Piper said during his sermon, posted on Bethlehem Baptist Church's website. "Expect from your shepherds not that they would rally you behind political candidates or legislative mandates, but they would point you over and over again to God and to his word."

Piper had been under pressure from conservative groups to weigh in on the amendment, according to his spokesman David Mathis, adding that Piper did not hold back over concerns the church could lose its tax-exempt status.

"Basically our position is, we're not taking one as a church," Mathis said. "And by addressing this in June rather than October or early November, there's no effort here for political expediency, trying to get certain votes out of people."

"He [Piper] wants to avoid the political realm as much as possible. The Christian Gospel is not left, it's not right. It is what it is."

President of the National Association of Evangelicals, Anderson stepped down in December as senior pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie and said it's inappropriate to take a stand on the amendment because he's no longer an active pastor. Anderson noted he stated his opposition to same-sex marriage in a 2004 pastoral letter to Wooddale congregants.

"When churches start getting really politically engaged, they often lose focus over what is their primary mission," Anderson said in an interview.

"There are appropriate times to do it [be politically engaged]. I think churches should, but they need to be careful about what they do. I especially think churches should seek to be nonpartisan in their approach to teaching moral truths."

The Rev. Mark Poorman, senior pastor at Woodcrest Baptist Church in Fridley, said he has encouraged his congregants to vote for the amendment and is disappointed Anderson and Piper won't join him.

"It would have been nice to hear him [Piper] be a little more dogmatic."

Poorman notes that with General Mills coming out against the amendment last week, coupled with Gov. Mark Dayton's continued criticism of the measure, amendment supporters need faith leaders to speak out in favor of it.

"I guess what concerns me is that while ... the other side of the aisle, boy, they've got people coming out of the woodwork to oppose it. If they [evangelical leaders] aren't going to weigh in and say something very insistent that people understand the issue and then make their voice count, then I don't know who will."

Andy Parrish, deputy campaign manager for Minnesota for Marriage, the main group advocating the amendment's passage, said Piper may not have explicitly told followers to vote for the measure, but he endorsed the idea that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

"Our campaign is working very hard running across the state, speaking to many churches, and they've been extremely receptive to what our campaign has had to say.

"We're encouraging support of the amendment. We're not going to critique [pastors]."

Faith groups statewide remain divided over the amendment. Catholic bishops, representing the largest denomination in Minnesota with close to 1.1 million followers, have come out in favor of it. Members of the state's second-largest denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with close to 800,000 adherents, have overwhelmingly voted against the amendment.

Evangelical leaders and congregations have played major roles in helping get marriage amendment measures passed in other states -- from helping raise money for pro-amendment groups to canvassing door-to-door to preaching the biblical-based belief that marriage should be a union between a man and woman.

But with the lack of formal support from leaders such as Anderson and Piper -- a writer of several books who has an international following through his Desiring God ministry -- Minnesota evangelicals may take a less active approach in supporting the amendment, said Wendy Cadge, associate professor of sociology at Brandeis University, who's written about religion's role in the same-sex marriage debate.

"Evangelicals are not monolithic across the country," she said. "It could be evangelicals in Minnesota are slightly different than evangelicals in parts of the Deep South."

Tony Jones, a Christian theologian who's written about Piper's ministry, said Anderson and Piper's more neutral approach may lead evangelical pastors to give similar sermons against homosexuality but not explicitly advocate that their flocks vote for the amendment. Or congregations might refrain from addressing the amendment altogether.

"I think Piper is probably speaking for a lot of evangelical pastors when he says let's stay out of politics for a while," Jones said.

Rose French • 612-673-4352