Minnesota pastors and lawmakers who support a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman aim to develop varied strategies to win voter support.
At a strategy session today, a gathering of ministers and politicians known as the Faith and Freedom coalition discussed ways to sell the marriage amendment to people who may not hold their fervent views.
Among their solutions: avoiding arguments over whether gays should have the right to marry, presenting marriage as a vehicle for child-rearing and reframing the issue as an opportunity for Minnesotans to exercise their right to vote.
Conservative Christians helped Republicans take control of the Legislature in 2010, and pass a marriage amendment that will appear on November's ballot. The Faith and Freedom Coalition intends to mobilize voters to approve the amendment to ensure that neither courts nor future legislatures can legalize gay marriage.
Churches are a key part of that strategy, but the Internal Revenue Service has limits on political speech from the pulpit if churches want to keep their tax-exempt status.
Jordan Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington D.C., urged the ministers to be as bold as possible without violating the law.
"When you talk about moral issues — so not just like how to vote on an amendment, abortion, or gay marriage or a marriage amendment but on moral issues, you cannot directly tie it to a candidate," said Sekulow, whose organization defends churches in freedom of speech cases. "Now, am I telling you I think that's the right law? No. But I'm trying to tell everybody here today is how far you can go because I think a lot of pastors are just too nervous, too scared to get involved."
Sekulow, who hosts a syndicated Christian radio show, said pastors can take to the airwaves. He said they also can make endorsements, but not from the pulpit and not using church materials.
Amendment opponents argue it would deny rights to gay and lesbian citizens. University of St. Thomas law professor Teresa Collett, who has given presentations in support of traditional marriage across Minnesota, suggested that amendment supporters frame the issue differently.
"If you believe that marriage is a pre-political institution, an institution that existed before the state of Minnesota was a twinkle in some explorer's eye... then, you're going to believe that marriage has an intrinsic nature," Collett said. "And that nature is a permanent sexual union between a man and a woman for purposes of creating the next generation and raising them to responsible adulthood. And so it's not a fight over who gets to get married, it's just you don't fit the category."
Many GOP lawmakers who voted for the amendment were at the meeting, but the room came to its feet for a last-minute appearance by Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who first proposed a marriage amendment when she was a state senator. Before a room full of supporters she described how to sell the amendment more broadly:
"I think if you want to talk to people who are not interested in talking about the morality you can also come at it as "should people be allowed to vote," Bachmann said.
A minister in the back of the room offered up a prayer for Bachmann. A pastor from Minneapolis asked for advice on how to talk about the amendment with parishioners who are parents of gay children.
Bachmann said she wasn't an expert, and switched back to her main line of argument, that people should get to decide the laws they live under.
Jim Anderson, pastor of The Harbor in Hastings, Minn., and a board member of the Minnesota Family Council said the meeting helped rally pastors who want to speak out:
"Most pastors in Minnesota get intimidating letters telling us we can't do things that constitutionally, we can. And I think that's been a big negative influence on the freedom of speech," Anderson said. "I think more and more people are learning now that they actually have greater latitude short of endorsing a candidate from the pulpit but they can talk about issues freely, so that's important."
The Faith and Freedom Coalition plans to work through what they call church captains to rally supporters throughout the state in the 10 months leading up to the marriage vote.