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Pastors gather in summit to argue for same-sex marriage ban

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Summit attendees were asked to sign a pledge, promising over the next five months to deliver a sermon on the definition of marriage, conduct a voter registration drive, and conduct a marriage amendment petition drive in their congregation. (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
Hundreds of religious leaders from around Minnesota gathered at a suburban Twin Cities church to sign a pledge to work toward a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages. The clerics, from numerous denominations, promise to preach against same sex marriage and circulate petitions in favor of an amendment.

Eden Prairie, Minn. — The religious leaders called their gathering a "Minnesota Pastors' Summit." Their effort, "Minnesota for Marriage -- One Man, One Woman," is being sponsored by the Minnesota Family Council.

At a news conference at Grace Church in Eden Prairie several talked about their effort to bring the issue of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage before Minnesota voters.

Pastor Paul Brushaber, of Christ Community Church in Rochester, called the debate a "cultural battle," and said lawmakers him need to get involved.

"The state has a role in defining standards of normalcy for our culture," he said. "We're used to hearing the statement that 'you can't legislate morality,' and at some level I would agree with that, but I would say that you can't legislate heart change. We legislate morality all of the time in every one of our laws."

Same-sex marriage is already illegal under Minnesota law, but opponents fear that law could be overturned in the courts. That's why they're looking to a constitutional amendment to settle the issue once and for all.

The religious leaders say the mobilization has nothing to do with partisan politics and that they'll register voters on regardless of party affiliation. Some also said they'll work against politicians who stand in their way.

Pastor Brent Waldermarsen, of Harvest Community Church in Willmar, singled out Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, a Democrat from Willmar who's also a Lutheran minister, as one such lawmaker.

"Senator Johnson is quick to point out that he is a Lutheran pastor and he is a chaplain. As a pastor myself, I find it somewhat confusing and alarming that the very gospel that Pastor Johnson answered a call to proclaim, that he only sees fit to uphold those biblical ideals that don't interfere with his politics," Waldermarsen said.

The religious leaders say they have a moral obligation to lead the debate . Asked whether bringing politics into the sanctuary might alienate church goers, Pastor Brushaber said a majority of Minnesotans want church leaders to speak out. And those who don't want to listen, can leave his church.

"A month or two ago I talked about this in a sermon and it wasn't a sermon about gay marriage at all but it was a sermon about what it means to stand for Christ in the world. And I said that one application of that in life and ministry would be to be involved in this issue even though it has some political overtones. And I even admitted to them that I understand some of them may not be there a year from now and that I was very OK with that. And I think people need to know that. It's not our job to win a popularity contest with our congregation," he said.

"We've been expecting this. We know that they're going to make a full-court press to try to pass this constitutional amendment," countered Ann DeGroot, of the gay-rights advocacy group Outfront Minnesota.

Public surveys on the issue have been inconclusive. An MPR News survey in the spring of 2004 found a majority of Minnesotans support a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to the union of one man and one woman. But three months earlier, a similar MPR poll found that while most of those surveyed oppose same-sex marriage, most did not favor a constitutional ban.

Degroot is convinced if Minnesotans take time to closely consider the issue, opponents of a same-sex marriage ban will prevail.

"We're really doing a lot of work in the area of awareness and visibility to help people understand the difference between civil marriage and religious marriage because I think there's a lot of misunderstanding about or in some ways people don't think about them as two different things and that we're really talking about civil marriage, we're not talking about religious marriage," according to Degroot.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty is on record in support of a ban. Asked about the amendment at an event unrelated to the summit on Thursday, Palwenty said he wants the issue on the ballot next year when he's expected to run for re-election.

"I think traditional marriage is an important part of our society and it's a cornerstone of our society and we should not treat every domestic relationship as the equivalent of traditional marriage, and so I think protecting that is important," Pawlenty said.

A sign of the contentious battle over same-sex marriage surfaced earlier in the day at the Pastors' Summit when a bomb threat forced the evacuation of the church.

Eden Prairie police found no bomb and the conference continued on.

MPR reporter Tom Scheck assisted in this report.

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