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Deep Catholic roots influence St. Cloud marriage amendment debate

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St. Cloud marriage amendment
Residents living along Garfield Court display signs in opposition of the proposed marriage amendment in St. Cloud, Minn. Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Outside a home in a quiet neighborhood, there is a white Cadillac parked in the driveway, with a 'Re Elect Gottwalt' sign attached to its side.

In the yard is a row of political signs, one of which reads, "Vote Yes. Marriage. One Man, One Woman."

The messages should come as no surprise to anyone who knows the homeowner - state Rep. Steve Gottwalt, the Republican lawmaker who sponsored the House version of the bill which placed the marriage amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot.

It asks votes to amend the state constitution to make marriage only between a man and a woman. That would effectively ban same-sex marriage, already prohibited by state law.

"We have defined in law what is in fact the cornerstone of society and that's a man and a woman coming together," Gottwalt said. "When they come together in an intimate relationship, they have the potential for creating a child. That relationship, if they're coming into a committed relationship called marriage, is a good for society."

That's a potent message in St. Cloud, home to more than 70,000 Catholics, and a place where the Catholic Church is putting money and resources into passing the amendment.

But while the city's deep Catholic roots are influencing the conversation, they are by no means dominating it. Minnesotans United for All Families - - the group working to defeat the amendment - also is active in the central part of the state and aims to change minds.

To do so, the group will have to try to overcome prominent voices like those of Gottwalt, who contends that the amendment was never intended to discriminate against same sex-couples - a key argument of amendment opponents.

But Gottwalt acknowledges that much of the debate has centered on equality.

"I believe firmly that we can love and respect our GLBT sisters and brothers, and stand up for the essential definition of marriage being only between one man and one woman," he said. "And I don't think that means we disrespect GLBT persons. It really doesn't. And I think that's where some of the comments about this being hateful or discriminatory are kind of off base."

In St. Cloud, amendment opponents face tough odds. The amendment has the support of many congregations throughout the city and 38.6 percent of residents consider themselves Catholic. That's nearly double the statewide average of 21.7 percent.

The Diocese of St. Cloud has contributed $50,000 to the campaign to pass the amendment, and promotes it to parishioners. Bishop John Kinney has written a prayer for marriage.

Father Tom Knoblach, pastor at three parishes, said the church has actively supported issues in the past, such as alleviating poverty and opposing abortion, but the marriage amendment seems to evoke even more passion.

"When we talk about marriage, the definition of marriage and family, it really cuts across every interest or every group," said Knoblach, also a consultant for health care ethics to the diocese. "It affects all of us. And I think that's why it engages people at such a visceral level."

Voters in 30 states have banned same-sex marriage in their constitutions, and amendment proponents want Minnesota also to do so.

Recent polls show the vote could be close. Republicans are more apt to favor the marriage amendment than Democrats, and those who find religion more important in their lives also are more likely to support the amendment, said Stephen Frank, a political scientist at St. Cloud State University.

"If you're in favor of this amendment, I would think that this is the year you probably get it through because of changing demographics, mainly age," said Frank, who runs the department's annual state survey. "There's a huge difference [between] people, 30 and under and let's say 50 and over."

Frank said polls show younger people tend to either support gay marriage or they simply are indifferent. He said that's largely true even for children of evangelicals and conservatives.

"Younger people will gradually become more dominant in the political spectrum and they bring different views," he said.

For any constitutional amendment to pass, the majority of those casting ballots have to vote for it. If the question is left blank, it counts as a no vote. The generational divide isn't lost on amendment opponents.

At a "vote no" phone bank just outside Waite Park, Minn., 23-year-old Blake MacKenzie volunteers a few times a week at a Minnesotans United for All Families office. MacKenzie, who is gay, said that he hopes to one day marry and have a family.

"I'd much rather raise kids in a place where they say their parents can be married and they can be protected if something would happen to me or my husband," he said. "So if there's kind of no hope for that in Minnesota ... I don't know if I would want to start my family here."

MacKenzie grew up in a family that attended a conservative Lutheran church. He's not sure how religion might influence the way members of his family vote on the amendment.

"My sister will vote no," he said. "My mom and I have really, really great conversations about it a lot ... [but] I think if she could snap her fingers and have me be straight she absolutely would."

MacKenzie said he isn't sure how his mother will vote. Some St. Cloud parents are struggling with how to vote on the marriage amendment. 

Several years ago, Amy Engebretson's children announced their engagements in the same month -- her daughter to her boyfriend and her son, to his boyfriend.

"Here's your daughter telling you she wants to get married and this guy's fantastic and you met him and you know him and all that kind of stuff. And you know what to do, you know how to react. It's kind of wired," Engebretson recalled. "Your son tells you he's going to get married and instead of feeling happy it was more like, 'Oh, what does that mean?' What does it mean for him? Will they be safe? Will they be respected? Will they be able to do stuff? Can people, can they live anywhere?"

Engebretson's son lives with her in St. Cloud. He's working and saving money to eventually move to Canada to be with his partner.

While Engebretson is fiercely supportive of her son, his relationship and desire to marry, the possibility of one day having same-sex marriage in Minnesota gives her pause.

"If we let people, encourage people to have same sex marriage, are we undoing something? " she asked. "Is it against nature? There is that question. That person lives inside of me too wondering about that. And that's why I say, 'am I missing something? ' "

Engebretson said there must be more people like her. Those in the middle. Those frustrated they're forced to make a choice. Those who don't understand how voting on marriage could be a simple question.

But polls show most Minnesotans have made up their minds on the amendment -- and only a small percentage are still undecided.

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