Why Minnesotans Won’t Stop the Conversation About Marriage

21 Jun

In a story about fundraising numbers reported Tuesday of this week by the campaigns for and against the proposed amendment to limit the freedom to marry in Minnesota, Fox 9 reporter Tom Lyden went on the hunt for a live spokesperson from the oddly titled group “Minnesotans for Marriage” and found them “not quite so easy to get a hold of.”

He reports, “Fox 9 stopped by their office Tuesday, which is actually a post office box at a Roseville UPS store.”

The P.O. Box was mum.

But who can blame that poor little box? Statements coming from the Minnesotans for [Meddling in Other People’s] Marriage[s] as of late have been downright weird.

Reached for comment, a P.O. Box in Roseville remained tight-lipped.

While in other state battles, conservative forces have often defined the terms of the debate, in Minnesota the conversation is being led by the campaign to defeat the amendment, while the pro-amendment forces are reacting and reactive. When Minnesotans against the amendment have defined marriage as being about love and commitment, our opponents have, amazingly, defensively, stated the opposite – marriage is not about love and commitment.  The definition of marriage, their spokespeople say, “has absolutely nothing to do with feelings of pride, harmony or love.”

Go to the other side’s rallies and you’ll hear things like, “you have no right to marry someone you love.”

Seriously. Marriage is not about love and commitment.

Who will tell the children?

Why Minnesota will buck the trend and defeat the Amendment

Pro-amendment forces seemed similarly tongue-tied in the aftermath of the National Organization for Marriage’s letter to 150 Minnesota corporations “advising” them to stay neutral in the marriage debate. Did I say advised? More like threatened: “We are watching carefully,” the letter stated.

When it took about five minutes for Minnesota corporate giant General Mills to say “meh” and ignore their ransom note, the pro-amendment forces had predictable tantrums but, as of yet, there is no big Cheerios boycott.  And does anyone believe they would be demanding neutrality of Fortune 500 companies if they thought any would be coming out on their side of the debate?

Although they look weak and reactive, we mustn’t be complacent. Beating back this amendment will be historic, and it will take an epic effort.  North Carolina recently became the 31st state to hand a victory to those pushing state constitutional bans and same-sex marriage.  So why won’t Minnesota become number 32?

I’ll give you three reasons: 1. Our side is for the first time making a religious-freedom argument, and they don’t know quite how to respond. 2. There is no longer a clear partisan divide on marriage attitudes, and time is our friend. 3. The pro-amendment forces are using a cookie-cutter playbook, while our side is engaged in an unprecedented statewide conversation.

1. Whose religious freedom?

In one of their “Marriage Minutes,” Minnesotans for (Limiting) Marriage asks, “Shouldn’t churches be free to define their own religious marriages but stay out of how civil marriage is decided?” and then answers its own question:

“No. It is impossible to have two societal definitions of marriage, one that is recognized by churches and one that is recognized by government.”

The problem this argument has in Minnesota, however, is that our side of the debate is not ceding the religious argument.  Headlines like “Religious Leaders Unite to Oppose the Marriage Amendment” – describing an event that brought together over 100 clergy of different faiths proclaiming that they oppose the amendment, “because of our faith, not in spite of it”– must be giving our opponents night sweats.

For the first time a campaign to defeat a marriage-limiting amendment has faith organizing at its center. People of faith here are saying, “Wait a minute — I get that your faith may not want to bless same-sex unions — but mine does. The status quo limits my freedom of religion. And now you want to put your religious interpretation in the Constitution?”

So what happens to your argument — that you can’t have “one” definition of marriage recognized by churches and one recognized by government — if churches and congregations don’t even agree among themselves?

People of faith in Minnesota are making a very Minnesota argument: you stay out of my church, I’ll stay out of yours.

2. The effort to put the amendment on the ballot was partisan, but the fight to defeat it is not

I’ve had the opportunity on several occasions to debate the marriage amendment on local television shows up against Republican opponents.  The first time, on TPT’s Almanac, one of the Republicans on the political panel assured us that “he has friends in homosexual relationships.” (No, to the best of my knowledge, he had not just stepped out of a time machine.)

Two other times, a funny thing has happened as soon as the camera is turned off and the studio lights go down. Once, after passionately arguing that money from gay groups outside the state would be pouring in to our state, once the cameras were off, one former legislator said, not quite under her breath, “I hate this amendment.”

Another time, another Republican – also, as soon as the segment wrapped – asked me and the host, “Did I sound like I support the amendment? Because I don’t.” He hadn’t sounded like he supported it: he hadn’t sounded like he opposed it either,  but still, his internal conflict was obvious and real.

The Republican Party, which for years pushed these amendments to turn out base voters, is no longer united in its opposition to same-sex marriage. Minnesota’s campaign to defeat the amendment has prominent Republicans on its steering committee, including E. Wheelock Whitney, who has led fundraising efforts among Republicans, and Tim Kelly, the Republican Assistant House Majority leader and one of four Republicans in the House who voted against putting the Amendment on the ballot.

Even nationally, Republicans are, in the words of President Obama, “evolving.”

3. The national conversation over marriage is evolving dramatically, and the campaign to defeat the amendment reflects that

Why the Republican evolution? Because the culture is demanding it.

One prominent GOP pollster recently sounded the alarm to the party faithful. Attitudes about same-sex marriage are changing dramatically among all voting groups and party affiliations, and they are changing at an accelerated rate.  In a memo to party leaders, the pollster writes:

“Support for same sex marriage has been growing and in the last few years support has grown at an accelerated rate with no sign of slowing down. A review of public polling shows that up to 2009 support for gay marriage increased at a rate of 1% a year. Starting in 2010 the change in the level of support accelerated to 5% a year.”

Minnesotans United for All Families has launched a massive, statewide, grassroots effort to move one on one conversations about marriage.  Young people are saying to their parents and grandparents, “Look, I know we might not see eye to eye on this right now — but my friends don’t feel the way your generation did.  If you vote yes, you are stopping a conversation that we’re still having. Don’t stop the conversation.”

Yesterday’s fundraising numbers — the one that the p.o. box in Roseville didn’t want to comment on — shows good news for our side.  Minnesotans United outraised our opponents, reporting $4.6 million raised from 19,000 individual donors, 90% of whom are from Minnesota. While Minnesotans for Marriage reported raising $1.4 million, we know from the experience of other states that their side swoops in with tons of cash in the final weeks to put up horrible, divisive ads to scare voters into thinking that voting no will be step one in the coming Apocalypse.

If we continue to do the work we’re doing, I am confident that by the November comes and those ads are up in the air, Minnesotans will overwhelmingly decide to vote NO and say that we’re not stopping the conversation. And we’re not limiting the freedom to marry.

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