Uneasy bedfellows, religion and politics in Red Wing marriage amendment debate

Rep. Tim Kelly
Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, speaks about his decision to vote against the marriage amendment Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012 in Red Wing. Kelly was one of four Republicans who voted against the amendment in the House. He now works with Minnesotans United for All Families in an effort to defeat the amendment.
Photo by Alex Kolyer for MPR News

When a dozen churchgoers recently gathered to discuss the marriage amendment, it quickly became clear that not everyone agreed that their religious views should be enshrined in the state constitution.

On the agenda was the measure on the November ballot that asks voters if they want to make marriage only between a man and a woman, reinforcing a provision in state law.

Red Wing resident, Dave Farrar, who hosted the discussion, asked if it's right for Christians to expect others to define marriage the way they do.

"To me, we have a duty to vote," he said. "I guess the way I look at it is should same sex couples get married? I think that's probably going to be unhealthy."

Farrar is one of only a few Red Wing residents to publicly support the marriage amendment. He said there's nothing wrong with expressing his faith's traditional values.

Others disagree. Among them is Andrew Mikkelson, who worships with Farrar at the non-denominational Cornerstone Community Church in downtown Red Wing.

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Mikkelson is uncomfortable with the way amendment supporters are infusing religion into politics.

"To get religion brought into these types of discussions on political issues, it's not what God would want," he said.

In a small town like Red Wing, where residents largely discuss the amendment behind closed doors, it can be hard to talk about faith and conservative values publicly, said Farrar's wife, Janie.

"People have been here for a long time," she said. "People don't want to take a stance on something because they know they're going to offend people. They're just not ready to stick their neck out like that right now.

In my mind, we're starting to talk about discrimination and prejudice.

In Red Wing, a picturesque town of 16,472 residents on the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota, few signs from either side dot lawns or storefronts along Main Street. Business owners say they veer away from the topic to avoid confrontations with friends and long-time customers.

While amendment supporters discuss the issue privately, a vocal and well-organized chapter of a gay rights organization is leading opposition to the amendment.

For about a year, the Red Wing chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays has kept a high profile, flooding the local paper's opinion pages with letters, marching in the city's annual summer festival, and in recent weeks staffing phone banks in opposition to the amendment.

Bruce Ause
Bruce Ause sits for a portrait in his home Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012. Ause, a member of the Red Wing chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or P-FLAG, has a lesbian daughter and opposes the marriage amendment.
Photo by Alex Kolyer for MPR News

Bruce Ause, a member of the group, said fighting the amendment is important for his family.

"The proponents of this amendment say we have to support our families and support a family with a father and a mother," said Ause, who has an adult lesbian daughter. "Well, if this passes, it's not going to strengthen my family. It's going to tear at my family. And it's not going to strengthen my daughter's family and it's going to make life that much more difficult."

The group has an unlikely supporter in Republican state Rep. Tim Kelly, who broke from his party last year to oppose placing the marriage amendment on the November ballot in an impassioned speech on the House floor. The Republican-sponsored measure passed the House and Senate largely on party line votes.

"We stand here on the House floor deciding whether to put an amendment on the Constitution of the state of Minnesota to remove some personal choices and freedoms from just a select few," Kelly said then. "Not for all, just a select few. In my mind, we're starting to talk about discrimination and prejudice."

After the speech, Kelly received nearly 500 emails from constituents, second only to the debate over the Vikings stadium. Nearly all of them were in support of his position. One woman wrote to thank him for his support of civil rights for all Minnesotans.

"As a married woman, I feel absolutely no threat to my marriage for the ability of gay and lesbian folks to be married like I am," she wrote. "Bless you and do keep up the good fight for all of us." It's hard to tell how people in southeastern Minnesota will vote on the amendment, said Kelly, who supports the work of Minnesotans for All Families, the group leading the fight against the amendment.

Goodhue County leans Republican. But four years ago, Republican presidential nominee John McCain won the county over then-Democratic nominee Barack Obama by only 355 votes.

"What you get from a metropolitan area is just that willingness and kind of openness to saying 'I want to have that conversation and it's all around us, so why aren't we able to either embrace it or just talk about it,' " he said. "Now, you get back out to rural Minnesota and that's more of a traditional Scandinavian background that says, 'I don't want to talk about it, I don't really care to have the conversation.' "

That reticence is inescapable in Red Wing. Inside the Red Men, a popular pool hall in downtown Red Wing, longtime friends gathered for a card game, swapping taunts and jokes with each hand. But the table grew quiet when a reporter asked about the marriage amendment.

"I just believe that if they want to live together that's fine, but I don't believe in them getting married in a church or anything," said an amendment supporter named Joan who declined to give her last name.

Her friend Gwen, disagreed, "We meet two or three times a week, and we've never discussed this, said a woman named Gwen who opposes the amendment. She also declined to give her last name because the topic is divisive.

"It's strange to hear the different opinions from them," she said of the others at the table. "I guess I'm the more radical in the bunch."

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