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Marriage amendment battle 'hits home' for St. Paul Park pastor

Oby Ballinger just wants to talk.

Ballinger and others working to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage have framed their campaign as one conversation at a time. They believe the more they talk to people about the ramifications of constitutionally defining marriage as only between one man and one woman, the more likely it is that voters will reject the ballot measure.

Ballinger calls it the power of conversation, a lesson learned from other gay-marriage ballot fights around the country.

"We found that people are twice as likely to vote no if they have had a conversation about why it's important to vote no," he said.

Ballinger brings personal perspective to his work against the Nov. 6 ballot measure. He is a pastor at Community United Church of Christ in St. Paul Park. He is openly gay, and in 2009 he married his partner, Javen Swanson, in Connecticut, where same-sex marriage is legal. (Their marriage is not legally recognized in Minnesota.)

"This hits home," Ballinger said in a recent interview. "It's undeniably personal to me."

For the past few years Ballinger has been a part of a group of clergy who met regularly to discuss same-sex marriage and other related issues. He became the point man for United Church of Christ congregations statewide to help work against a same-sex constitutional ban.

Ballinger, 29, stepped up his fight against the amendment in June when he took a partial leave of absence from his pastoral duties at Community United Church of Christ to join the campaign against the amendment. He is part of the Minnesotans United for All Families campaign network opposing the amendment. He has talked with people in congregations around the state and has trained amendment opponents in how to respectfully discuss the issue with Minnesotans and stressing what opponents see as the proposal's pitfalls. In the campaign's closing weeks, Ballinger's work is focused on organizing a team of volunteers who are calling people in the faith community who already plan to vote against the amendment and encouraging them to continue talking with others.

The issue is complicated for people of faith, Ballinger said. They grow up learning that marriage is between a man and a woman, and yet they also know gay people who are in a loving, committed relationship, he said.

"People of faith are conflicted about this," he said, acknowledging some of his own congregants at Community United Church of Christ will support the amendment. Ballinger has preached against the amendment, but like other church leaders said he and his congregation do not endorse political candidates.

No same-sex marriage ban put before voters in other states has ever failed, but Ballinger said he is optimistic Minnesota will be the first to turn one down. The state's citizens have a long history of taking care of one another, he said.

"That's the kind of Minnesota that I think we understand can win the day," he said.

Minnesota law already bans same-sex marriage, but gay marriage opponents say legislators or judges could overturn that.

Despite Minnesotan's deep differences over the same-sex marriage ban, Ballinger said the faith community has an obligation to help heal that divide regardless of the ballot measure's outcome.

"Come what may on Nov. 6, we're going to be here to be one Minnesota," he said. "I will be working to that end after the vote."

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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