Marriage debate about to get louder

Gay marriage supporters and opponents gather outside House chamber in May of 2011.

An epic fight between Minnesotans against gay marriage and those who support it mostly has flown under the public’s radar for 14 months.

“The average Minnesotan is vaguely aware something is going to be on the ballot,” said Professor Kathleen Hull of the University of Minnesota.

But that is changing as Nov. 6 nears. That’s when Minnesota voters will decide the issue.

With thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars in hand, this constitutional amendment campaign promises to be an unusually robust one.

The question to be put in front of Minnesota voters asks if they want to enshrine in the state Constitution the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. The definition already is in state law, but amendment supporters say they fear the Legislature or judges could overturn the law, a much more difficult task if the definition is in the Constitution.

Hull is a sociologist specializing in topics such as marriage and same-sex marriage who said television commercials both sides plan to air before Nov. 6 will drive up interest.

“There are people on both sides who are intensely interested and motivated,” Hull said. “I am not sure I would say the state of Minnesota as a whole is interested.”

Sociology professor Debra Peterson of Bemidji State University compared the gay marriage issue to abortion politics.

“It is a touchstone issue in certain circles,” she said about both sides. “In other circles, it is a non-issue.”

Amendment opponents at Minnesotans United for All Families, with $4.6 million in contributions, hope to break a streak of 30 states passing the marriage definition.

The umbrella group fighting for the amendment, Minnesota for Marriage, reported $1.4 million in donations.

Both sides will spend much of their money on commercials, with opponents already reserving television time in the weeks leading up to the election.

In general, the pro-amendment campaign follows the winning ways of other states, with differences such as recent protests at General Mills’ headquarters after that corporation’s decided to publicly oppose the amendment.

“It remains to be seen what the difference will be,” Minnesota for Marriage spokesman Chuck Darrell said of comparing the campaign to other states. “We will have more time to talk about it, that’s for sure.”

After other states averaged less than six months in marriage-definition campaigns, the 18 months in Minnesota since the Legislature approved the amendment could affect the vote.

For those against the amendment, the added time provides much more opportunity to organize and raise money than similar groups in other states.

“That is a whole different scenario,” said Kate Brinkman of Minnesotans United.

The time also has allowed the anti-amendment coalition to make its case to the faith community than happened elsewhere.

“We have seen the other states cede the religious ground,” Brickman said.

Pro-amendment forces do not see the extended campaign as helping their opponents.

“The opposition really isn’t any different than what we have seen in other states,” Darrell said.

Darrell said the added time helps his side explain the need for a marriage definition.

Both sides have spread out from a Twin Cities base, with field workers scattered around Minnesota.

Darrell was not sure how big a paid staff Minnesota for Marriage carries, but said the organization has about 70,000 supporters signed up.

Brickman said amendment fighters have up to 80 full-time staffers and “tens of thousands” of volunteers.

Minnesota for Marriage is not just one organization, Darrell said.

“We’re a coalition,” he said, with long-established groups such as the Minnesota Family Council and Minnesota Catholic Conference on board and working for the amendment.

Minnesotans United also brings together separate groups after pro-gay organizations Outfront Minnesota and Project 515 started it last year.

Minnesota for Marriage (minnesotaformarriage.com) has offered an on-line “Marriage Minute” (http://tinyurl.com/mnmarry) for weeks, giving voters a preview of what might appear on their television screens in coming months.

For those against the amendment (mnunited.org), plans are to continue what Brickman called a “conversation campaign” with videos already released (http://tinyurl.com/mnunited).

Professors Peterson and Hull, both opponents of the amendment, said many Minnesotans have not picked a side.

“I think there are a lot of people trying to make up their minds on this matter,” Peterson said.

Politically split places like where she lives, Bemidji, with a Democratic state representative and Republican state senator, may be “a little more undecided than other areas,” Peterson added.

Emotions likely will ramp up as the election approaches, and Hull said the campaigns could get ugly.

With expectations of heavy advertising on the way, Hull looked into her crystal ball: “I do predict people will be sick of this by Nov. 7 … no matter what our position on it.”

 

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