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Rallying the Faithful
Advocates for and against the proposed gay marriage ban tap into the wellspring of religious conviction
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Credit:Christopher Sharp

No hymns were sung, no candles lit. It was not exactly a prayer meeting. But Julaine Appling did make clear where, for her, grace lives. Speaking of divorce and the sorrows it brings, she told the gathering, 'If this hasn't touched your family, praise God!'

Appling was lecturing in the sanctuary of Faith United Methodist Church, in Neenah, on a rainy night in late August. She was there to teach concerned Christians how to be, as a flyer promoting the event proclaimed, 'salt and light in their community.'

The reference is scriptural. 'You are the salt of the earth,' Jesus tells the faithful and curious in the Gospel of Matthew. 'You are the light of the world.' The event drew 17 people, most older than 40, some much older.

Appling is executive director of the Family Research Institute of Wisconsin, a Madison-based nonprofit that is aggressively promoting the constitutional amendment on which Wisconsin citizens will vote Nov. 7. The amendment would definitively ban gay marriage ' already illegal in Wisconsin ' and prevent unmarried people from obtaining legal status 'substantially similar' to marriage. This broad category almost certainly includes civil unions and could put the whammy on domestic partner benefits, particularly from public employers.

Faith United Methodist is a modern building in a neighborhood of sprawling lawns and parkland. The church sits, as fate would have it, a block up the road from Gay Street. As Appling started her presentation, a PowerPoint slide projected on the sanctuary wall read, 'Marriage under attack.' She wore a vivid red blazer and paced in front of the altar as she spoke.

'When you take marriage apart,' she began, 'dissecting it, pulling it apart, you make it mean something it's not supposed to mean, and you put people in vulnerable situations.'

Appling is a mesmerizing, forceful orator. She appealed to audience members' fear and distrust: 'If you want marriage to be defined by a judge, vote no.' She said, repeatedly, that a 'No' vote would open the door to polygamous marriage. She used PowerPoint to call up a photo of Rosie O'Donnell kissing her partner, Kelli Carpenter. The image made audience members titter.

Appling couched her case against gay marriage in sociology, scripture and anecdote, mentioning a Dutch judge who this summer refused to ban a political party formed by pedophiles. Among Appling's claims: normal, straight people are 'wired' to be offended by the sight of amorous gay men. She said this was the reaction of a straight man she knows who perused an illustrated book for the children of gay male couples.

'Men who understand what heterosexuality is all about have a visceral reaction to what they see in these books,' she said. 'Men wrapped around each other!' She let loose with a theatrical shudder.

But Appling's main purpose in Neenah was not to argue the case against gay marriage. Rather, it was to energize voters who already oppose gay marriage, to convince them to go to the polls. As her PowerPoint flashed a photograph of children and the words, 'Can they count on you?', Appling urged audience members to speak to their pastors, and to spread the message.

'One of the hardest groups to motivate,' she stated, 'is good, solid churchgoers.'

Getting right with God

Wisconsin's amendment reached the Nov. 7 ballot after the Legislature approved it in two consecutive sessions. The ballot measure reads: 'Marriage. Shall section 13 of article XIII of the constitution be created to provide that only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as marriage in this state and that a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state?'

Since 1998, 19 states have approved constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Most of these ballot measures, like Wisconsin's, coincided with fall presidential or midterm elections. The largest number passed in 2004, hot on the heels of a Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to gay marriage there.

In all, amendments to beat back the threat of gay marriage will appear on Nov. 7 ballots in eight states: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The battle in Wisconsin is seen as having national stakes. Opponents hope the broad wording of the amendment and depth of the opposition will lead to the state being the first to say no. Proponents see Wisconsin as a key battleground in their effort to keep alive the momentum over this hot-button issue.

Indeed, the Colorado-based conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family has registered with the state as a referendum committee. It can now use its considerable war chest to promote the amendment.

Christians are a mighty voting bloc ' 69% of Wisconsinites identify themselves as Christian, according to a 2003 Badger Poll. Much support for the amendment has come from Christian conservatives, the so-called values voters who helped reelect President Bush in 2004.

The marriage ban has energized the Family Research Institute, whose Web site is devoted almost entirely to this single issue. Founded in 1986, the institute has been led since 1998 by Appling, an Atlanta native who served on Watertown's school board until last year. The institute's mission is 'to forward Judeo-Christian principles and values in Wisconsin.' Appling says her group has 'ten or eleven' paid staffers, all of whom are Christian. She attends a Baptist church in Watertown and says, 'My faith saturates every component of my life.'

Her group is promoting the ban with church events like the one in Neenah. Others have taken place in Eau Claire, Sheboygan, and Baraboo. 'We would go anywhere to do them,' says Appling, 'but the people most interested are churches.'

Last May, the institute organized a 'pastor's summit' at the Alliant Center, where attendees heard clergymen from Green Bay and elsewhere talk up the amendment. In August, it joined Focus on the Family in hosting a meeting for church leaders at New Testament Church, an African-American nondenominational church in Milwaukee. Participants heard about 'Debunking the 'born gay' myth' and learned how marriage is 'under fire' in Wisconsin.

The Family Research Institute of Wisconsin does not report details of its financing to the State Elections Board, saying it is exempt since it engages only in 'educational' efforts and does not explicitly urge citizens to vote a given way. Appling declined to say where the group gets its money or how much it has. (The institute does have a referendum committee, Vote Yes For Wisconsin, which can engage in direct advocacy; this offshoot reported in July that it raised $2,454 and spent $547.54.)

Clearly, the institute is spending a lot of money. The institute has produced a pro-amendment DVD, which has been distributed to more than 5,000 churches. (Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group, estimates that the DVDs cost more than $20,000.) The seven-minute video is narrated by a calm, baritone voice that muses, 'If we continue down this road, will we be asked to legalize marriage between one man and two or more women, or even between groups of people?'

'The opening shots have been fired,'the voice says, as an American flag waves. 'The Family Research Institute of Wisconsin is leading the charge to amend our state constitution to protect and preserve God's plan for marriage.'

Taking the pledge

On the Family Research Institute Web site is a pledge form asking state pastors to 'speak out publicly in support of Wisconsin's Marriage Protection Amendment.' More than 200 pastors have signed, including Catholics, evangelicals and mainline Protestants. Appling says the form was sent only to clergy members likely to sign, not to liberal pastors: 'I don't have that kind of time to spend on those folks.'

Still, not everyone who received the pledge has signed it. Among the refusniks is Ed Killeen, pastor of Lake Trails Presbyterian Church in Madison. Lake Trails is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America, a historically conservative branch.

'I believe marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman,' says Killeen. 'But I believe the government and the people have the obligation to uphold the civil rights of citizens.'

Does Killian support civil unions? 'That's something that can be taken up in the Legislature as an issue for debate,' he says. 'I don't think [civil unions are] inconsistent with either what our nation was founded on, or the Biblical principles to care for the rights of individuals.'

Mike Moore, pastor of Madison's Faith Community Bible Church, also received the pledge and declined to sign. 'I get lots of things from everybody who wants you to do what they want you to do,' he says. 'I don't have time for all those sorts of things.'

As for the amendment, he would tell his parishioners to 'consider it, and take it to the Lord with their conscience, as we would with any election kind of thing.'

Among the signers is Robert Morlino, the bishop of Madison's Roman Catholic Diocese, which includes 134 Catholic churches in 11 counties. (According to the 2003 Badger Poll, Catholics account for more than half of Wisconsin's self-identified Christians.)

Morlino, who did not respond to numerous interview requests, has loudly opposed gay marriage since arriving in Madison in 2003. The diocese's Web site prominently directs visitors to a link that reads, 'Get involved in the fight to defend marriage!'

In March, Morlino preached in favor of the amendment in Sun Prairie. 'Our mission to purify the culture in the United States is down the tubes if we cannot protect marriage,' he said, according to the Madison Catholic Herald. He then made a largely anatomical case against gay marriage: 'One doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to look at human anatomy and see how the equipment works.... When we look at the drive of every human person for total intimacy and we look at the anatomy of the human body the conclusion is: one husband, one wife, one lifetime, with openness to children.'

Jim Green calls the bishop's comments, which treat gay sexual activity as aberrant and inherently sinful, 'very hurtful.' The membership chair of Integrity/Dignity, a local group for gay Episcopalians and Roman Catholics, Green thinks the amendment is divisive and 'will do nothing to support heterosexual couples ' you know, the ones who are getting divorced more than 50% of the time.'

Growing up, Green attended Catholic mass at St. Bernard's parish in Middleton, and while a young adult he spent eight years as an ascetic at Divine Word Missionaries, a Catholic order in Techny, Illinois. Then he came out as a gay man.

'I believed everything the church told me,' he says. 'But I can't breathe in an institutional church that's restrictive of ordaining women, of welcoming GLBT people, that uses sexist language.'

So why does he not leave the church altogether? 'I look at it this way,' he says. 'If you leave, you can't fight 'em. It's important to question authority. The church does not have all the answers. I never left the church, in my soul. The church left me.'

What about the evangelicals?

A survey released last month by Baylor University shows that evangelical Christians are far more likely than Catholics or mainline Protestants to have politically conservative views. But not all evangelicals lean to the right.

On one end of the evangelical spectrum is Ron Dobie, pastor of Stoughton's Christ the King Community Church and president of the Dane County Association of Evangelicals. With Appling, he serves on the advisory council of the Wisconsin Coalition for Traditional Marriage, a group of religious, community and business leaders working to promote the amendment.

'I support marriage,' he says. 'When we went to no-fault divorce, we saw the divorce rate go up and the marriage rate go down, because it devalued marriage. This is another thing that says marriage is not important.'

Dobie also condemns homosexuality. 'The homosexual lifestyle is not a healthy lifestyle,' he says. 'Homosexuality has never been accepted by any society that I know of. [Gay marriage] would be a huge step away from what traditionally has been true. If we do that, I don't think we have any basis to say polygamy is wrong, or bestiality is wrong.'

In principal, Dobie agrees it is healthier for gay people to be in committed relationships, as opposed to not, but says society benefits from the traditional definition of marriage. 'Emphasizing marriage between one man and one woman is the best way to go,' he says. 'We should be promoting that, not doing anything to diminish it.'

On the other end of the spectrum is Chris Dolson, senior pastor of Blackhawk Church, a west-side 'mega-church' that packs in more than 3,000 worshippers each week. While he affirms that the Bible says the only appropriate sexual relationships are between married men and women, he says the amendment has not come up in his conversations, and he will not preach about it.

Like a growing number of evangelical preachers, Dolson believes church is not an appropriate place to discuss politics. 'It's not an issue of this or that amendment,' he says. 'What's more important, following Christ, or following our Legislature?'

But Dolson encourages churchgoers to consider Christian ethics as they ponder the amendment's possible effects on the gay community. 'Put yourselves in their shoes,' he says. 'Do you think it would be beneficial to them? The whole thing about people not being able to see their dying spouse because they're not married, to me that's not fair.'

An abuse of scripture?

The organization working most prominently against the amendment is Madison-based Fair Wisconsin. Unlike the Family Research Institute of Wisconsin, it does not conceal how much money it collects and spends. As of July, according to documents filed with the Elections Board, Fair Wisconsin had raised $1.3 million and spent $218,204.

The group has hired a staffer, Eric Peterson, to work full-time as faith outreach director, to line up the support of church organizations and clergy members. So far, 22 regional church organizations, 44 congregations and 152 faith leaders, mostly clergy, have signed on.

Most of the support comes from mainline Protestant Christians, as well as Unitarian, Jewish and Buddhist groups. Also on the list is the Metropolitan Community Church, a Christian group that ministers primarily to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender worshippers.

Although mainline churches have been shrinking since their heyday in the middle of the 20th century, they still have millions of adherents. Some of these churches have moved to the left in recent years, on such issues as contraception, abortion and gay rights. Not all of their members have moved with them.

Indeed, some parishes have left the Episcopal church ' the American branch of the global Anglican faith that began with the Church of England ' over gay issues. Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians have also struggled over gay issues.

Among mainline denominations, the United Church of Christ has gone the farthest in accepting gays and lesbians, with a 2005 resolution that endorsed gay marriage. Wisconsin UCC ministers far outnumber clergy from other denominations on Fair Wisconsin's endorsement list.

Fair Wisconsin is coordinating outreach to liberal religious people with church-sponsored canvassing efforts and panel discussions. Among the latter was an event Sept. 17 at First Presbyterian Church in Wausau. An audience of 12 came to the church's soaring neo-Gothic sanctuary to hear four panelists: Leslie Shear, a UW-Madison law professor; Rebecca Behrend, a psychologist in Wisconsin Rapids; and Nancy Zorn Micke and Susan Zencka, both pastors who live and work in Stevens Point.

Shear, who has two children with her female partner, expressed her grave legal concerns about the amendment, especially its 'substantially similar' clause. 'The second sentence is not a great example of legal draftsmanship,' she said. 'There is no way for anyone who supports ' or opposes ' the amendment to tell you the outcome, because the language is so vague.' Behrend described research demonstrating that committed gay relationships are as stable and as satisfying as straight ones.

Then came the pastors' turn. Micke, a UCC pastor, assailed religious conservatives who 'raise certain verses and stories as texts of importance, and use them as weapons.' She spoke with quiet anger. 'This is a misuse, an abuse, of scripture,' she said. 'It has been used to support slavery, discrimination against people with certain diseases, capital punishment, monogamy, polygamy.'

Next was Zencka, a Presbyterian. Smiling, she examined some of the scriptures to which Micke had alluded, among them Leviticus 18:22: 'You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.' This text, she noted, 'is in the context of other scriptures that forbid rotating certain crops in the field, or wearing mixed fibers.' For modern Christians to single out that passage and ignore the rest of the proscriptions in Leviticus is, she said, irresponsible.

'The amendment would undermine the ability of some people to live faithfully,' she said. 'It's bad public policy not to promote faithfulness wherever we can find it.'

Scare tactics

One of the most prominent ministers working against the ban is Curt Anderson, senior pastor of Madison's First Congregational Church, part of the United Church of Christ.

In June, Anderson spoke against the amendment at the annual meeting of Wisconsin UCC congregations, in Green Lake ' a meeting at which delegates overwhelmingly passed a resolution opposing the amendment. He has helped organize events for Fair Wisconsin, and his church hosts canvassing efforts against the ban. He supports equal marriage rights for all.

As Anderson sees it, Christians who cite scripture to condemn homosexuality are hypocritical: 'Everyone who takes those passages literally should take literally what Jesus said about money. He said, 'Sell everything you have, and distribute it to the poor, and follow me.' If they want to read the Bible literally, I want to see them walking around in nothing but sackcloth.'

He rejects the comments of those who, like Appling and Dobie, argue that gay marriage opens the door to polygamy. 'There is not a logical connection,' he says. 'It's just another scare tactic. I'll make a deal with anybody on the right wing. If they oppose this amendment, I will stand foursquare with them opposed to marriage rights for three or more people.'

Above all, he bridles at the notion that liberal Protestants are out of the mainstream of Christianity. 'Jesus,' he says, 'was out of everybody's mainstream. You don't decide on morality by taking a vote.'

Taking sides

For the ban
These Dane County clergy members have signed a pledge supporting marriage 'as the exclusive union of one man and one woman,' according to the Family Research Institute of Wisconsin.

Fitchburg
Pastor George Schleif, Fitchburg Christian Fellowship

Madison
Pastor Paul R. Bawden, Grace Evangelical Church
Pastor David E. Carlson, Bethany Evangelical Free Church
Fr. Patrick J. Kinder, St. Ignatius of Antioch Orthodox Church
Bishop Robert C. Morlino, Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison
Pastor Glenn Smith, Metro Believers Church
Pastor Lana Stauffacher, Capitoland Christian Center
Rev. Stephen Stauffacher, Capitoland Christian Center
Rev. Rex A. Wegner, Capitoland Christian Center

Middleton
Pastor Arthur E. Schulz, Trinity Lutheran Church

Monona
Pastor William R. Bartz, Monona Oaks Community Church

Stoughton
Pastor Ronald A. Dobie, Christ the King Community Church
Pastor David L. Handt, Christian Assembly Church

Sun Prairie
Pastor Ken Brummel, Open Door Church
Pastor Jon A. Gerdts, Living Water Church, Sun Prairie
Pastor Reed Heckman
Pastor Adrian Rayo, New Life Church

Waunakee
Pastor Josh Lough, Grace Community Church

Against the ban
These Dane County clergy members have come out in opposition to the gay-marriage amendment, according to Fair Wisconsin.

DeForest
Rev. Gail O'Neal, Wisconsin Conference United Church of Christ

Fitchburg
Rev. Bonnie Van Overbeke, Memorial United Church of Christ

Madison
Rev. Curt Anderson, First Congregational UCC
Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, Temple Beth El
Rev. Winton Boyd, Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ
Rev. Tisha Brown, Community of Hope United Church of Christ
Rev. Roger Buffett (not under call), United Church of Christ
Rev. Sharon Cook, Bethany United Methodist Church
Rev. Kelly Crocker, First Unitarian Society of Madison
Rev. Deborah Dean-Ware, Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ
Rev. Calvin Harfst, Parkside Presbyterian Church
Rev. John Helt, Lake Edge United Church of Christ
Rabbi Kenneth Katz, Beth Israel Center
Rev. Dean Kirst, Lakeview Lutheran Church
Rev. John Klindt (retired), United Church of Christ
Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
Rev. Brad Mather, Bethany United Methodist Church
Rev. Robert Mutton, Southwest Wisconsin Association of the United Church of Christ
Rev. Julie Overman, Lake Edge United Church of Christ
Rev. Ken Pennings, Wisconsin Council of Churches
Rev. David W. Roberts (retired), United Church of Christ
Rev. Michael Schuler, First Unitarian Society of Madison
Rev. John Schultz (retired), United Church of Christ
Rev. Diana Shaw (retired), United Church of Christ
Rev. Roman Shemayev, Grace Episcopal Church
Rev. Amanda M.D. Stein, Trinity United Methodist Church
Rabbi Andrea Steinberger, UW Hillel Foundation
Rabbi Greg Steinberger, UW Hillel Foundation
Rev. Jan Summers (retired), United Church of Christ
Rev. Bob Voss (retired), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Rev. Dr. Charles A. Wolfe, Plymouth United Church of Christ
Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim

Marshall
Rev. Paul G. Anderson, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

McFarland
Pastor Wayne Shannon, McFarland United Church of Christ

Monona
Rev. Sue Burwell, Monona United Methodist Church

Rev. Shirley R. Funk, Lake Edge Lutheran Church

Oregon
Rev. Norlan Hanson (retired), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Verona
Rev. Wiebke Waltersdorf, Salem United Church of Christ

Waunakee
Rev. Rachel S. Cobb, Crossroads United Methodist Church

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