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Marriage amendment foes hope conversations will change hearts, votes

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Let Your Friends Know
Betty Tisel, second from left, and others participate in a "Let Your Friends Know" workshop sponsored by Minnesotans United for All Families Monday, Sept. 10, 2012 at All God's Children Metropolitan Community Church in Minneapolis. The event is intended to provide people with tools to talk to their family and friends about defeating the proposed marriage amendment.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

With two polls out this week showing that Minnesotans favor a proposed constitutional amendment that would make marriage only between a man and a woman, opponents of the measure are in the midst of a strategy they think will sway voters.

A key component will be conversations with voters designed to elicit compassion for gays and lesbians. That's important, the opponents say, because arguments against discrimination haven't worked in other states.

Meanwhile, amendment supporters also are talking with voters, but not so much to change minds. Instead, they largely aim to determine how many people are on their side.

GOAL: REACH 1 MILLION MINNESOTANS

Voters in 30 states have banned same-sex marriage in their state constitutions, and amendment proponents are optimistic that Minnesota will do so, reinforcing a provision in state law.

On both sides, the discussions are taking place at front doors and over the phone. But given the polls, marriage amendment opponents know they need a game-changer if they hope to break the pattern. They're betting a massive push to speak to 1 million Minnesotans before Election Day will do it.

With that in mind, about 20 people gathered at All God's Children Metropolitan Community Church in South Minneapolis to learn how to start such conversations. Minnesotans United for All Families, the group working to defeat the amendment, suggested they start with friends and family members.

"These conversations are really how we're going to win this election in November," said Alison Froehle, 25, who led the training. "Talking to the people in our lives, having personal conversations is why we're going to be the first state to defeat this amendment." 

Her co-facilitator, Jen Arnold, is blunt about the challenge ahead.

"Thirty states have passed amendments that are similar to this one," Arnold, 26, said. "We've done a lot of research about what works and what doesn't. And what we've discovered is people have emotional concerns about marriage for same-sex couples. They're not sort of rational arguments, they're more about feelings. So we're learning how to react to that."   

Arguments in favor of same-sex marriage failed in other states because talking about rights, equality and discrimination didn't move hearts, leaders of Minnesotans United say. The group's training, called "Let Your Friends Know," aims to reframe the discussion from one of rights, to one of personal stories.

A DIFFICULT TOPIC

But it won't be easy, especially in conservative areas like southwestern Minnesota where many plan to vote for the amendment.

"It's really hard to talk to your parents," said Jill Mueller, of Lakefield, Minn., who participated in the Minnesotans United training. "My dad's a pastor and we've had that conversation a couple of times ... but we talk over each other and my mother won't engage me in the conversation at all."

"These conversations are really how we're going to win this election in November

At the meeting, Mueller said she was particularly wary of discussing the amendment with her mother. But three days later, she wrote in an email that she and her parents managed to have "a solid and thoughtful discussion" about the amendment.

Her father, a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, told her he believes it's possible to support gays and lesbians and be for the amendment. Mueller disagrees, but hopes they can find common ground in their compassion for gays and lesbians. The conversation with her mother was shorter, but perhaps yielded more change. Her mother admitted she had never really known a gay person and said maybe if she met someone she could talk to, it might change her mind.

Such conversations are effective, Minnesotans United spokeswoman Kate Brickman said.

"We know from the conversations that we have all across the state that after we talk to someone, 25 percent of those people, one in four, move along the spectrum to a no vote," Brickman said. "Maybe they move from undecided to leaning no. Or maybe they were really voting yes, but now they have some doubts and you've planted the seeds of just getting them thinking about it."

So far Minnesotans United has logged 250,000 conversations from volunteer pledges to talk with 25 people, calls from phone banks and visits to homes. The campaign plans 750,000 more conversations in the final seven weeks of the campaign.

AMENDMENT SUPPORTERS SKEPTICAL

Proponents of the marriage amendment, however, doubt the effort will weaken support for it. 

"It's the content of the conversations that matter," said Chuck Darrell, communications director for Minnesota for Marriage. "When you're trying to convince people, when you're trying to redefine an institution, when you're trying to convince people that marriage is just about the adults and their relationships, that kids don't need a mom and a dad ... people just don't buy it."

At the Minnesota for Marriage phone bank, volunteers largely work to identify people who support the amendment.

"You know that the amendment will preserve Minnesota's traditional definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman and put it in the state constitution so that judges and politicians can't redefine marriage in the future without the approval of voters which has sadly happened in other states," one volunteer tells a voter in Mankato.

Volunteers ask how strongly voters' support the amendment. In an hour's time, callers identify those who will vote for it, others who decline to state their views, and some who oppose it but want to debate the issue.

"These calls right now for our volunteers are just to identify where the callers would vote if the vote was today, said Crystal Croker, statewide political director for Minnesota for Marriage. 

Undecided voters will likely receive a follow-up call, and yes voters will get a reminder to show up at the polls.

Minnesota for Marriage reports having reached 80,000 voters through its phone banks so far. The organization plans to double that in coming weeks.

CHURCHES GET INVOLVED 

But it's not just the campaigns that are trying to engage Minnesotans on the marriage question. 

For those who want a deeper exploration of the issue in a calm and neutral setting, The Minnesota Council of Churches, which doesn't take a position on the amendment, has launched a statewide "Respectful Conversations" series.

Project director Gail Anderson said in a media culture that promotes division, and where public debate can play out largely through ad wars, the council saw an opportunity not to change minds, but to soften hearts.

"There's some biology, some neurology involved in this," Anderson said. "When you're faced with an opinion that is a strong opinion and it's different than your opinion, it can feel to you like an attack. Neurons fire. Things happen in your body that make you want to fight back or run away. So we've structured this, so that it's calm."

About 600 people have participated in the council's conversations series, with at least that many signed up to participate in future meetings before the election. Participants in the series share a meal together, during which each person has a chance to speak without interruption.

Evaluations show people leave feeling clearer about their own point of view because they've had a chance to articulate it, Anderson said. They also report feeling more empathy for people who disagree with them.

In a tight race that could leave half the electorate elated and the other half disappointed, that empathy could come in handy.