Marriage amendment sparks hot debate

Debate at Fitzgerald Theater
From left, Rev. Jerry McAfee of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church; Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage; MPR's Kerri Miller, Bishop Gene Robinson, Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire; and Sarah Walker, board member of Minnesotans United for All Families debate the proposed amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman Nov. 1, 2012, at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn.
MPR photo/Tom Campbell

National and local leaders debated Minnesota's proposed marriage amendment last night on the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater.

The amendment would define marriage as between a man and a woman in the state constitution. Four debators — national and local voices splitting each side of the issue — exposed conflicting views of religion and human relationships, and what's at stake in Minnesota's vote.

The debate was hosted by Minnesota Public Radio with The Daily Circuit's Kerri Miller as moderator.

Brian Brown, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage, said the amendment would keep the definition of marriage in the hands of voters, and block judges and legislatures from making same sex marriage legal. His organization has been active in Minnesota's campaign to pass the amendment.

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"Do you believe that the courts or politicians should define the nature of marriage, or do you believe that the people should?"

"The amendment here in Minnesota has to do with a simple question: Do you believe that the courts or politicians should define the nature of marriage, or do you believe that the people should," Brown asked the crowd.

Brown's organization has spent $1.5 million to persuade people in Minnesota to join 30 other states that have passed similar constitutional amendments. National Organization for Marriage is the single largest financial contributor to the side supporting the amendment.

His national opponent in the debate was Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the country's first openly gay bishop and married to a man.

Robinson countered that gay couples are not trying to redefine marriage, they want to join it. He said public acceptance of same sex marriage is growing.

"I'll tell you what's changing people's minds. They see two men or two women who love and care for each other in the ways that husbands and wives have cared for each other for countless generations. And they see them creating a family and loving their kids," Robinson said. "As a religious person what I would say they see, is the light of God shining in those relationships."

Robinson said the amendment would write discrimination against same-sex couples into the constitution.

Marriage amendment partisans
Marriage amendment supporter and opponent vehicles travel near the Fitzgerald Theater prior to the debate on the topic Thursday, Nov.1, 2012 in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Anthony Kwan

Debater, the Rev. Jerry McAfee of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in North Minneapolis, repeatedly challenged Robinson to cite Biblical texts to support his view. McAfee rejects marriage can between same-sex couples.

"The core of what we believe is that marriage was ordained by God, as given in the Bible. If you add to it, then you change my belief system," McAfee said. "And when you change my belief system, I have just as much right to vote yes as anyone else does [to vote] no because it shifts my belief system."

McAfee is one of 500 clergy to sign a letter citing their obedience to God in support of the amendment.

"As a religious person I would say what they see, is the light of God shining in those relationships."

The fourth debater, Sarah Walker, pointed out that there are also hundreds of clergy on the side opposing the amendment. Walker is a board member of Minnesotans United for All Families, the main group working to defeat the amendment.

Walker reminded the crowd that Tuesday's vote is not a vote to legalize same-sex marriage in Minnesota. Whether the amendment passes or fails, same sex marriage still will be against state law. But Walker urged a vote against the amendment so that the man-woman definition is not locked into the state constitution.

"I would like our future generations to have a stake and be able to take part in this conversation," Walker said. "And by voting no, you're going to allow them to continue to have the conversation and not impose what you're asking from your perspective now."

Supporters of the amendment argue that if it were to pass and voters later change their minds, they could ask the legislature to put a new amendment on the ballot and vote again.

The current campaign has already been the most expensive for a constitutional amendment in Minnesota history, costing upwards of $15 million.