Editorial: A marriage debate offers lesson for all

Published: Saturday, May. 18, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A
Last Modified: Sunday, May. 19, 2013 - 11:46 am

In the nation's socially conservative heartland, Minnesota voters were the first to reject a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which had passed in 30 states. Opponents of same-sex marriage had won every popular vote until then, including in California.

And on Wednesday, Minnesota state legislators followed up and approved same-sex marriage, the first non-coastal legislature to do so. They did it with some Republican votes, too, including a Republican co-sponsor.

This marks a turning point and Sacramento was very involved, with two consultants who had been on opposite sides of California's Proposition 8 campaign – Frank Schubert, who had led every successful campaign to ban same-sex marriage, and Phyllis Watts, a psychologist who does consulting.

Significantly, Schubert's well-worn 11th-hour scare tactic about schools and children – perfected in the Proposition 8 campaign and exported to the rest of the country – failed.

The other side effectively drew on the real journeys of Minnesotans on the marriage issue. In one ad, a middle-aged Minnesotan looks straight into the camera and says, "My marriage is the most important thing in my life. Who am I to deny that to anybody, gay or straight. I'm not going to limit a basic freedom just because I'm uncomfortable."

In another, a Catholic man and woman, who are Republicans and married 13 years with three kids, talked about the importance of marriage to them and how they hadn't thought a lot about same-sex marriage. However, a gay couple with an adopted son were "the most wonderful neighbors" and it didn't faze their children at all.

But the game-changer was how the campaign facilitated grass-roots, participatory conversation in local communities.

Watts was part of a team digging deeply into how people were struggling with the marriage issue, what were stumbling blocks and how to overcome them. The campaign then trained tens of thousands of volunteers how to talk respectfully and listen to their friends, neighbors and family about why marriage matters to them – engaging people in conversations about values, allowing them to make a reasoned decision.

Watts told The Bee's editorial board that "the Minnesota marriage campaign will change how issue campaigns are done" and showed how grass-roots campaigns can be turned into lasting legislative accomplishments.

To win bipartisan support for the marriage bill, a last-minute Republican-offered amendment inserted the word "civil" in front of the word "marriage," to make it clear that civil marriage and religious marriage are different things. The bill outlined specific protections for clergy and religious organizations that don't want to perform same-sex marriages.

State Sen. Branden Petersen, the 27-year-old Republican co-sponsor of the bill, sees a generational divide in his party on the issue, but he realized his support could end his political career. "I stand here quite honestly more uncertain of my future in this place than I have ever been," he said. "But when I walk out of the chamber today, I'm absolutely certain that I'm standing on the side of individual liberty."

After the legislative vote, marriage equality proponents announced formation of a political action committee to provide support for legislators who supported the bill: "These legislators cast an important historic vote, and now it's our turn to show our appreciation and tell them that we've got their back."

The power of conversation and grass-roots organizing returned in Minnesota, offering an antidote to monied, Astroturf campaigns that dominate our politics, and offering a lesson to the rest of the nation.

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