Marriage amendment debate division in Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids divided coffee
Grand Rapids residents, Peter Lavalier (left) and Jeff Miels (center), enjoy a cup of coffee while falling on either side of the marriage amendment question.
Photo by Deb Lyngdal/KARE 11

The first rainbow sign you see driving into Grand Rapids isn't a gay pride flag. It's for the Judy Garland Museum.

Born in Grand Rapids, Garland rose to fame as a singer and Hollywood star. Long a friend to the gay community, her songs are popular in drag shows.

In her hometown of nearly 11,000, the gay population is small. But gay and lesbians and their allies are making their voices heard in the marriage debate. So are area churches that are leading the effort to help pass the amendment.

If approved by voters in November, it would change Minnesota's constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman, reinforcing current state law.

Supporters of the amendment include Kelly Klatt, the youth minister at St. Joseph's Catholic Church. During a Labor Day parade in neighboring Bovey, Klatt, her husband and youngest daughter marched with other member of their church. They carried signs bearing names of the 30 states that have passed marriage amendments similar to the one on the ballot and urged Minnesotans to do the same.

"You had people booing and giving you the thumbs down, which, on a regular basis you don't deal with stuff like that, so that was kind of shocking," Klatt said. "A grandmother booed my daughter who's 9 years old."

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Klatt's four older children, who range in age from 12 to 18, declined to march in the parade. Klatt said they were afraid and didn't want to stick out on the controversial topic.

Doing so can make amendment supporters uncomfortable in Grand Rapids, she said.

Judy Garland Museum
The Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids celebrates with life and accomplishments of Judy Garland with an international reach.
Photo by Deb Lyngdal/KARE 11

"Sometimes you feel like you're a little bit all alone," Klatt said. "Within my religious community here at St. Joe's we are very open, we talk about it, but as far as out in the community, we're in a culture where 'I'm OK, you're OK.' You don't want to hurt people's feelings but this is something that really is right to the core of the matter. Marriage has been in place for so many years. It takes a lot of courage to stand up and talk about it and some people aren't willing to listen."

Each day leading up to the election, Klatt and other parishioners at St. Joseph's pray the rosary, asking God to lead voters to pass the marriage amendment.

A grandmother booed my daughter who's 9 years old.

Half a mile away, amendment opponents made phone calls, asking voters for their thoughts on marriage, and if they know people who are gay. "And what concerns you about marriage for same sex couples?" one caller asked.

Running the phone bank was Andy Mundt, the northeastern Minnesota field organizer for Minnesotans United for All Families, the main group working to defeat the amendment.

"Dial, dial, dial!" Mundt exhorted the volunteers. "This is a numbers game. Last week you were saying, Darcy, you had quite a few not-homes. So it's breezing through those until we get someone who's on the phone."

For Mundt, who grew up in nearby Deer River, the marriage amendment is intensely personal.

Yes Mississippi!
Members of St. Joseph's Catholic Church held signs with the names of states that have already passed similar amendments in their march supporting the marriage amendment.
Courtesy of Kelly Klatt

"This is a very hurtful amendment for me as a gay man who was in a long-term committed relationship," he said. "I was in the hospital in a coma with my partner by my side, and because we did not have the freedom to get married, he was forced to leave my side in the hospital."

Mundt said he never again wants to be told his family doesn't count.

"Silence is our opposition," he said. "It's when we're silent we will not win."

Amendment opponents say an important part of their strategy is engaging their neighbors in conversations about the marriage amendment.

In Grand Rapids, neighbors are divided. That's clear from the opposing signs in yards and churches, and from conversations in coffee shops like Brewed Awakenings. That's where Jake Gustafson, a self-employed flooring installer, said he plans to vote yes on the amendment.

"I believe thoroughly that there is a God and he wrote us the Bible and he wrote us all the info we need to know about marriage in there," said Gustafson, 28, who described himself as a non-denominational Christian.

At the next table, David Brumm, a retired nurse with braids in his Viking beard, couldn't be more opposed to the amendment.

"It's basically a Republican plot to get the faithful out to vote," said Brumm, 62. "I think it should be vetoed. If they want the right to get married, they can get married and be just as miserable as the rest of us."

While opinions are evenly split among the people willing to talk in the coffee house, the marriage amendment is a topic plenty of people there want to duck.

Among the lakes and pines of northern Minnesota, one man who supports the amendment said "everybody has their own tree they like to hide behind up here."

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