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Marriage amendment divides Hibbing, a socially conservative DFL stronghold

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Teresa and Sam Sajevic
Teresa Sajevic, left, and her husband Sam Sajevic listen to Father Anthony Craig speak Wednesday evening during an informational meeting at Blessed Sacrament Church in Hibbing, Minn. promoting a yes vote on a same-sex marriage amendment appearing on Minnesota ballots in November.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

When Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church recently held its first "reclaiming the culture of marriage event," about 60 people filed into the parish social hall, a clear sign that Iron Range supporters of the so-called marriage amendment are preparing for a fight.

"We're trying to enshrine in law what is best for the society, what will make the strongest society," said Allen Jacobson, a parishioner and attorney who led the event. "we believe that the same-sex union will hurt marriage — redefining marriage to include same-sex unions will hurt marriage."

Communities across Minnesota are debating the constitutional amendment ahead of the November ballot. It asks voters to change the state constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman.

The issue of who should be able to marry divides families, churches, towns and political parties. That's evident on the Range, a socially conservative DFL stronghold where both sides hope to win — and where feelings about the amendment run deep.

STRONG VIEWS ON MARRIAGE

Statewide, the Catholic Church is a strong backer of the marriage amendment, and the single-largest financial contributor on either side. As the largest parish in the Duluth diocese, Blessed Sacrament has an active presence in Hibbing, an Iron Range mining town of 16,000.

Sitting in the front row at the marriage event was Jacobson's wife Patty and four of their five young daughters. 

Patty Jacobson is a dentist who cares for many low-income children on the Range and volunteers for the Pregnancy Life Care Center. She said when she and Allen were asked to be "church captains" on the marriage issue, at first she wasn't excited to take on another obligation.

"I don't like conflict, I don't want any more conflict with my friends and I didn't want to give up any more time away from my family," she said. "But then I realized it is very important and it's important for our state so that the people can choose law when in many cases right now what's happening is the judges are choosing the law."

Same-sex marriage is already against the law in Minnesota, but Jacobson worries that Minnesota could follow Iowa's example, where the state Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2009. Passing what supporters call Minnesota's "Marriage Protection Amendment" would put marriage laws out of reach of the courts or the Legislature.

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• Catholic family with lesbian sister weighs amendment
• MPR News Primer: The marriage amendment

The event at Blessed Sacrament drew many people who support the amendment.

Former Hibbing Mayor Dick Nordvold, a fellow parishioner, is a Democrat who parts company with his party on some social issues. He opposes legal abortion and favors the marriage amendment which the DFL is gunning to defeat. At the DFL state convention in June, the party passed a resolution opposing the marriage amendment.

"Who is out there that doesn't think marriage is between a man and a woman?" Nordvold asked. "But things are changing and that is a concern to me."  

Nordvold has seen that change in his own family.

"We have members of our extended family that are gay and lesbian and in one case, one is in a committed relationship — and a beautiful relationship," he said. "There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not a marriage!"

Thirteen years ago, Nordvold's niece held a commitment ceremony with her partner in Chicago. Nordvold didn't attend and now says he regrets it. But his love for the couple and acceptance of their relationship doesn't change his view that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Not everyone who came to Blessed Sacrament's event shares Nordvold's support for the amendment. 

Ashley Rantala, 24, is a fourth-generation Finn on the Range who founded Iron Range GLBTA. A lesbian who is in a committed relationship, she strongly opposes the amendment. But Rantala came to hear what the other side had to say.

"It was interesting to hear some of their points," she said. "I'm just trying to understand, you know, where they're coming from. But it was a lot more respectful than I thought it would be."

The Range is famous for its colorful political fights and labor battles. It's an area where people are not shy about expressing their opinions, and the debate can get heated. 

But when it comes to the marriage amendment, church captain Patty Jacobson said she thinks the discussion will be civil. Hibbing is a small town, and people have common bonds. 

"I'm glad that people felt comfortable enough to voice their questions because we want a dialogue," she said. "We can't learn if we don't dialogue. If we're too threatened to dialogue with one another we aren't going to ever grow."

ORGANIZING THE "NO" VOTE

One of the people in town most committed to dialogue is a granddaughter of longtime Blessed Sacrament parishioners.

Jamie Ebert, 24, was hired by Minnesotans United for All Families to organize Iron Rangers against the amendment. 

"We're going to have a nice storefront right downtown where we can have folks stop by and pick up lawn signs, and T-shirts and come in and volunteer," Ebert said.

"If we're too threatened to dialogue with one another we aren't going to ever grow."

The storefront is on Howard, Hibbing's main street, a place Ebert has been coming to since she was a child. She grew up in the Twin Cities, but her mom is from Hibbing, and her grandparents still live in town.

Ebert said her mother, a lesbian, spent 15 years in an unhappy relationship, trying to be straight. She left Ebert's father and now lives with a woman in Minneapolis in what Ebert describes as "an amazing, loving household."

Her daughter is determined to defeat an amendment that would limit the ability of people like her mother to marry the people they love.

In the annex of a bicycle shop, Minnesotans United is setting up one of eight offices across the state.  As for the other side, there's no sign of Minnesota for Marriage, the pro-amendment group, doing any organizing here except through the Catholic Church. 

Ebert said the approach to winning "no" votes on the Iron Range isn't any different than in the rest of the state. Opponents need to engage people in conversations and share personal stories about why marriage matters to everyone, gays and lesbians included.

"There is a strong set of people up here that have just never experienced this before," she said. "You know we ask them, 'Do you know someone who's gay?' And they have to think about it first and they think, 'Oh yeah, I think I've got these neighbors who live together that must be gay,' but it's just something not really talked about up here until this point."

GAY ON THE RANGE

For the small, openly gay population on the Iron Range, the amendment feels like a very personal referendum. Their Range neighbors will vote on the most intimate aspect of their lives. 

Twice a month, Ashley Rantala's Iron Range GLBTA meets at Hibbing Community College. The night after the Blessed Sacrament meeting, Rantala wheeled in a black suitcase and took out a rainbow flag, health pamphlets, condoms and a rainbow-striped suggestion box. When she started the group four years ago, she put up flyers, set up the room — and no one came. Now people drive from over an hour away and they hold some meetings in Virginia to serve the other end of the range. 

On a recent evening, eight people came to the meeting, including Jeffrey Whitney who is back in Hibbing for the summer after living in New York City for 18 years. Whitney, who graduated from Hibbing High School in 1994, said he left Hibbing as fast as he could.

"It was a horrible high school experience with being harassed," he said. "I was never was out of closet in high school or even 100 percent for sure about my sexuality. However I was in New York City for all of three and a half minutes and I was like, 'OK, I'm gay, for sure.' But one good thing I'll say is ... I've been pleasantly surprised in the GLBT presence that is open here ... People as a whole are generally way, way more accepting than I can remember." 

The main order of business at the meeting was how to help defeat the amendment. Rantala encouraged GLBTA members to be even more visible in the All-American summertime tradition, the small-town Fourth of July parade.

"Starting last year, we made a float in the parade and we were in the Gilbert parade ... it was fun," she said. "We basically borrowed my dad's Escape and his trailer and we made a big banner and we decorated the whole float Rainbow and we marched with our Pride flags right down in the parade. We got some remarks but we got compliments too." 

This year, the group plans to be in Fourth of July parades in Aurora, Gilbert, Eveleth, Tower and Biwabik — five times more parades than last year. 

Being so publicly out on the Range is pretty new, but they have some powerful allies.

Most Iron Range legislators and labor leaders have publicly opposed the amendment.

But C.J. Peterson, a member of the local GLBTA,  doesn't think her co-workers who are Democrats will follow their leaders on this one.

"People as a whole are generally way, way more accepting than I can remember."

"[In] our union, everything is 'Vote Democrat' — whatever. All of the guys that I work with, they're not voting no, but they are still Democrats," Peterson said.

"I think people are relying on that too much," she said of the DFL's position on the amendment. "We can't assume you know that a Democratic vote means a vote 'no.' " 

That split between workers and leaders is exactly what amendment supporters are counting on. 

Minnesota for Marriage points to exit polls in California showing 56 percent of union households favored that state's Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage.

In Minnesota, amendment proponents are confident they'll capture a majority of votes on the Range.

Range labor leaders say that won't happen.

Ida Rukavina, a 33-year-old organizer for AFSCME Council 65 on the Range, has been involved with Range politics for years. She began knocking on doors as a child for her dad, former state Rep. Tom Rukavina, a Democrat who represented the area for 26 years. Ida Rukavina said she believes union members will back their leaders in opposing the amendment in November.

"Labor leaders have come out in opposition to this," she said. "Our unions are about making sure people have rights and this is taking away people's rights. I think people are going to come around and realize there's no place for this in our constitution."

Another Democrat, former state Rep. Joe Begich of Eveleth, predicts a tough battle over the marriage amendment on the Range. Begich, who spent 18 years in the state Legislature before retiring in 1992, intends to stay out of the fight.

He said older residents of the Range are particularly opposed to gay marriage.

With his DFL party on one side, and his Catholic Church on the other, Begich said he has too many friends on both sides, and at age 82, he doesn't want anyone mad at him. 

"So I'm just going to sit back and watch the show," he said. "And however [it] happens happens. I can live either way." 

Begich does plan to vote; he just won't say which way. And a Ranger without an opinion to share shows just how deep this fight is.