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A year before marriage vote, both sides play defense

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Bachmann flashmob
A group of "gay barbarians" gathered outside Marcus Bachmann's clinic in Lake Elmo, Minn., on August 25, 2011 to protest his views on homosexuality and those of his wife, Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A year from now, Minnesotans will vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman.

Proponents of the amendment and those who oppose it have a long ground war ahead of them as they try to convince voters that an amendment would either help or hurt families. If the early skirmishes are any indication, both sides already are on the defensive.

The marriage battle is expected to be a big, expensive fight. The first sign of how big the stakes are was a series of clashes this summer before the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board. Pro-amendment groups like the Minnesota Family Council that pushed hard to place it on the ballot, argued that releasing the names of their financial contributors would make them vulnerable to harassment and retaliation from the other side. 

At the June 14 meeting, board member Andy Luger, an appointee of Gov. Mark Dayton, questioned Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council about the perceived threat.

"Other than your intuition, your instincts, your sense of what might happen, do you have information that that is going to occur?"  Luger asked.

"Well, I can't say it's going to happen until it happens, but I think you look at what's happened in other states — California and other situations where that has happened, and even if there isn't an actual incident, the chilling effect of speech, or criticism or other things," Prichard said. "I mean, even short of physical attacks on violence or something like that."

Tom Prichard
Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, at a Campaign Finance Board meeting on June 14, 2011. His organization supports a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Opponents of same-sex marriage were successful in placing the issue on next year's ballot as a way to head off efforts to legalize gay marriage through the Legislature or the courts.

Amendment proponents say they've never lost. In the 31 states where marriage has been on the ballot, voters have banned same-sex marriage. Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia have legalized marriage for same-sex couples.

In late June, the National Organization for Marriage flew in James Bopp Jr., a well-known lawyer for conservative causes, to testify before the board.

Conservative columnist Katherine Kersten picked up the theme in a recent Sunday op-ed in the Star Tribune headlined, "We can expect aggression on marriage vote." Kersten wrote about what she called "the new Diversity Ayatollahs" persecuting those who support traditional marriage.

Proving those kinds of claims in court has been more difficult. Three federal judges in Washington State and California ruled traditional marriage supporters failed to show sufficient evidence of threats, harassment and reprisals.

Conservative columnist
Conservative columnist Katherine Kersten's commentary in a recent issue of the Star Tribune newspaper that she believes opponents of the same-sex marriage amendment proposal in Minnesota will use scare tactics against supporters of the measure.
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Richard Carlbom, campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families, the largest group working to defeat the amendment, said its supporters are conjuring up a threat that's not there. He said amendment opponents have no plans to harass the other side.

"It is, I think, a common diversion tactic to try to change the subject, try and make themselves look as though they're the victims even though they're the ones that put this measure on the ballot, and they're the ones who kind of started this conversation with Minnesota," Carbom said. "Minnesotans United as an organization is simply looking to have a very respectful, thoughtful and  insightful conversation through 2012."

But passions also run high among those who support gay marriage — and Carlbom's group can't always control the message.

On a sunny morning in late August, a flash mob dressed as barbarians showed up in a Lake Elmo parking lot in front of Marcus Bachmann's clinic to protest his stance against homosexuality, and the politics of his wife, Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, the original author of Minnesota's Marriage amendment.

The clinic door remained closed and the shades drawn while the "barbarians" went through their five-minute dance routine, choreographed to Lady Gaga's "Born this Way."

Nick Espinosa
Nick Espinosa has staged a series of glitter-bombings of politicians who oppose same-sex marriage. He was photographed October 27, 2011 at Hennepin County Government Plaza, where he's now part of Occupy MN.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Directing the horde that day was 25-year-old Nick Espinosa, who wore a brown fake fur cape to remind people of Bachmann's earlier assertions about homosexuality and that "barbarians need to be educated."

In May, at the Minnesota Family Council's annual dinner, Espinosa posed as a fan of Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, and when Gingrich leaned down to sign a copy of his book, Espinosa shook glitter all over the former House Speaker.  

Videos of the glitter incident have received nearly a million views on YouTube, and the caper led the New York Times to mention Espinosa in an opinion piece.

"It's a pretty amazing thing for just a bag of glitter and a camera," Espinosa said.

At the Hennepin County government plaza, where he's now part of the OccupyMN rally against Wall Street, Espinosa brushed off questions of whether he might be playing into the hands of his opponents braced for harassment from gay-rights activists.

"I think it makes them look kind of ridiculous, and especially when you contrast that with what they're actually doing to communities and families, telling loving couples they don't have the right to get married using this really nasty  rhetoric that actually does produce violence against queer communities and the bullying that happens in school. To me, those are the real assaults, and the real victims of this issue," Espinosa said.

On Sunday, a crowd of 100 protestors assembled in front of Thrivent Financial in downtown Minneapolis. The group called "Join the Impact" pledged to "Call Out Funders of Anti-Gay Bigotry and Demand "Marriage Equality Now." There was not much media coverage.

Protest at Target
A group called Join the Impact demonstrated outside Target Corp. headquarters on Sunday October 30 to protest Target's political contributions to politicians who oppose gay rights.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

"We're here to demand that Thrivent Financial stop its funding of anti-LGBT hate and bigotry," protestors said, referring to donations from Thrivent's Lutheran Community Foundation to the Minnesota Family Council and Focus on the Family, a conservative group based in Colorado.

Chis Anderson, executive director of The Lutheran Community Foundation, said the foundation runs 3,500 donor advised funds in which donors make their own charitable selections. Seven years ago, a donor directed $500 to the Minnesota Family Council.

Last year, a donor gave $5,700 to Focus on the Family. Anderson said the Foundation takes no position on social or public policy issues such as the marriage amendment.

The protestors moved on to Target Corp.'s  headquarters to protest the company's widely publicized contribution to a group that supported Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, an opponent of same-sex marriage, who lost the race.  Target has since revised its policy for political donations.

From the glitterati on one side, to columnist Katherine Kersten's derision of same-sex marriage advocates as "Ayatollahs of Diversity," voters may tire of the issue well before going to the polls.

Surprisingly, that's one point the two official camps seem to agree on.

Carlbom of Minnesotans United for All Families said he wants a debate Minnesota can be proud of.

Chuck Darrell of Minnesota for Marriage, a pro-amendment group backed by The Family Council said he wants to keep the focus on whether marriage should be "redefined." But he's wary of demonstrations like the glitter incident.

"There's always a small minority of people who resort to those types of tactics, and unfortunately they become then a focus of attention and really that's not what this is about," Darrell said.

Both sides say they're busy in the trenches, organizing supporters, recruiting volunteers and raising funds for the long battle ahead.