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Lutherans guide efforts for and against marriage amendment

Activists promote opposing views

Minneapolis Area Synod (ELCA) Bishop Ann Svennungsen speaks for more than 170 rostered leaders at Minnesotans United for All Families’ “Clergy United” event outside the Minnesota State Fair. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

Over 30 states have voted on constitutional amendments to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. All have passed.

Now it’s Minnesota’s turn.

The state legislature passed a resolution last spring placing a proposal on the November ballot. It’s only 27 words long: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be revised so that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?”

The language is simple. The arguments on either side tend to become complex. One could be excused for thinking the issue is a simple Republican (“vote yes”) versus Democrat (“vote no”) issue. The Republicans put one man, one woman language into their national convention platform at the end of August. A week later the Democrats affirmed legalizing marriage for gays and lesbians in same-sex relationships.

A “Vote Yes” lawn sign is displayed in a South Minnneapolis yard. Photo credit: Candace Schoenecker

How energized are Lutherans in regard to the marriage amendment? It’s hard to know.

But, says the Rev. Grant Stevenson, an ELCA pastor, seeing the issue as a split between the two major parties would be simplistic. “Our volunteers and our voters are Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and people who don’t affiliate at all with politics but care about the gay and lesbian people in their lives.” Stevenson says some of his group’s biggest donors are Republicans.

And, there are undoubtedly some Minnesota Democrats who will vote yes in November.

Where do Minnesota Lutherans come down on the issue? Groups that emphasize the inerrancy of Scripture believe there is no debate — and that the proposal should be approved. In a resolution adopted this summer by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) Minnesota District, delegates agreed (with at least one dissenting vote) that the proposal “appears to be consistent with clear scriptural teaching on God’s will for man and woman in marriage.”

At its convention earlier this year, the Minnesota South District of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) overwhelmingly approved a resolution that stated, in part, “God created marriage to be a union between one man and one woman and Jesus reaffirmed [this].” The statement cited Genesis 2:24, Ephesians 5:22-23, Matthew 19:5, and Mark 10:7.

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), scripture is read and understood to be dynamic. ELCA theologians have accepted the insights of scholarly biblical research and interpretation for more than half a century. They are open to the real possibility that what scripture has to say about homosexuality, for example, needs to be understood in light of the culture in which the biblical writers lived.

In that context, it is not surprising that five of the six ELCA synods in Minnesota passed resolutions at their assemblies this year opposing the “Marriage Amendment.” (Only the Southwestern Minnesota Synod voted to table plans to address the question.)

As in the political arena, however, there will undoubtedly be LCMS and WELS church members who will choose to vote no, while an unknown number of ELCA members will surely vote yes.

Lutherans impact the conversation

Two organizations at work in Minnesota this year represent the two sides in this debate. Some Lutherans have signed on with each, both as staff and volunteers. Both groups have secured endorsements from organizations, including some Lutheran congregations.

Minnesota for Marriage argues that anything less that codifying marriage between a man and a woman as part of the state’s constitution represents a threat to the institution.

Minnesota for Marriage (www.minnesotaformarriage.com), a group supporting the initiative, lists 104 supporting organizations, including Good Shepherd Free Lutheran Church, Hope Lutheran, Lebanon Lutheran (LCMC), Living Branch Lutheran, Vision of Glory Lutheran (AFLC) in Plymouth, and the Minnesota North District of the LCMS.

Opposing the Marriage Amendment is Minnesotans United for All Families (mnunited.org). Its support list includes 606 organizations, including Calvary Lutheran of Minneapolis, Edina Community Lutheran, the GLBT Advocacy Ministry Team of Central Lutheran, Holy Trinity Lutheran, Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer, Lutherans Concerned [both the Twin Cities and the national organization (now known as Reconciling Works)], Our Savior’s Lutheran of Minneapolis, Pilgrim Lutheran of St. Paul, Salem English Lutheran, St. Olaf Lutheran, St. Paul Reformation Lutheran, and St. Paul’s Lutheran (ELCA).

So, what’s really at stake if the marriage amendment is passed — or if it isn’t? Both advocacy groups believe there are fundamental issues on the line.

Minnesota for Marriage argues that anything less that codifying marriage between a man and a woman as part of the state’s constitution represents a threat to the institution. An essay on its website declares, “[Any other definition of marriage] will produce a host of societal conflicts that government, exercising its broad enforcement powers, will have to resolve.”

According to the posting, legalizing “genderless marriage” would mean that those who don’t affirm it would be treated under the law “like racists and bigots” and would be punished for their beliefs. Such a situation would impact a host of issues, including religious liberty.

Stevenson, who is faith director for Minnesotans United for All Families, agrees that liberty is a key issue. But he explains it differently. “We need to defend religious freedom. This proposal is really about that.”

“We know young people don’t want this [amendment],” Stevenson says. “The young people I talk to think it’s crazy to change the constitution [as proposed].”

How energized are Lutherans in regard to the marriage amendment? It’s hard to know. Both advocacy groups are working hard to get their message out. Minnesotans United for All Families has trained 1,200 volunteers to have conversations in congregations. The Rev. Ann Svennungsen, bishop of the largest ELCA synod in Minnesota, has spoken out publicly against passage.

Five of the six ELCA synods in Minnesota passed resolutions at their assemblies this year opposing the “Marriage Amendment.”

The WELS convention resolution has been commended to pastors and congregations for thoughtful reflection, as has the one passed by the Minnesota South District of the LCMS.

The Rev. Arnold Lemke, who wrote the WELS resolution, told Metro Lutheran that his church doesn’t tell its members how to vote. Rather, clergy encourage their parishioners to delve into scripture and then vote their consciences.

According to the Rev. Mark Noren, a member of the district president’s staff in LCMS’ Minnesota South District, “[It is to be hoped that] our pastors are appropriately speaking with their parishioners about this issue.”

Recent polls suggest there may be around 47-48 percent support on either side of the issue. If that continues through the end of October, the Marriage Amendment may be as closely decided as is the race for U.S. president. And Lutherans, who account for well over one million Minnesotans, will have played a decisive role in the outcome.

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