Some Lake Minnetonka churches appear to be sitting on the sidelines as the coalitions on either side of the same-sex marriage issue launch fundraising efforts that will power their campaigns through the 2012 election.
Meanwhile, a Minnesota campaign finance watchdog group is warning that the largest organization supporting the proposed constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage has worked to hide who funded their campaigns in the past.
“Dirty” Money Predicted
"What concerns me about the upcoming constitutional amendment debate is all the secret money" that will be raised out of state, said Mike Dean of Common Cause Minnesota. "It's going to be a dirty, dirty campaign."
Much of that money, Dean alleged, would be raised by the Minnesota Family Council, the state’s leading anti-gay lobby group. It has estimated that its planned campaign would cost $4 to $6 million. The group has already formed an alliance with the conservative National Organization for Marriage to campaign in favor of the amendment.
Local Churches On The Financial Sidelines?
In the midst of this hurricaine of money, some area churches are saying they will be sitting this battle out, at least financially.
In previous campaigns to ban same-sex marriage, churches have played a key roll—particularly in California and in Maine. In both cases, churches helped get supporters of a ban to vote and helped organize donations from parishioners. More importantly, large religious organizations—the Mormon Church in California and the Catholic Church in Maine—funneled large sums of cash to activists trying to ban same-sex marriage.
“In Bible class and in worship we’re pretty clearly opposed [to homosexuality],” said Rev. Mike Michlak of Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Mound. “But we don’t exhort people to advocate one way or the other. We leave that up to each individual’s conscience how they want to respond to that politically.”
Pastor John Zahrte of Excelsior’s Our Savior Lutheran Church says he and his church believe that same-sex marriage is “making another wrong” on top of what they believe is the sin of homosexuality.
“Now, are we going to campaign, are we going to go out there and say ‘go vote?’ We might,” Zahrte said.
However, he said he would not organize political donations from his parishioners.
“I think it violates the chuch and state thing, personally,” Zahrte said.
A History of Financial Secrecy
While legal, raising much of the money for a campaign from out-of-state donors flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which holds that Minnesotans don’t want to feel like their election is being railroaded by a bunch of well-connected outsiders.
Minnesota for Marriage—a group created by National Organization for Marriage, the Minnesota Family Council and the Minnesota branch of the Roman Catholic church—has filed with the state as a group that will be actively courting voters to support or reject the proposed amendment. It will have to disclose donors. The National Organization for Marriage did not respond to Patch's repeated requests for comment about the organization's plans to raise money.
"NOM looks forward to supporting the campaign and lending our expertise and resources to those of [our] allies in the state," said a press release from the group's president, Brian Brown, issued following last month's vote to put the issue in front of voters in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
"The National Organization for Marriage has a long history of trying to circumvent disclosure laws across the country," Common Cause’s Mike Dean said.
While the National Organization for Marriage has litigated in the past to avoid disclosing its donors, evidence occasionally emerges that large portions of its budget seem to come from church-affiliated organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus.
In order to hide the prospective out-of-state millions they might raise, Dean said, the National Organization for Marriage and the Minnesota Family Council could set up a particular kind of non-profit known as a 501(c)(4), which does not have to disclose its specific sources of revenue, but is limited in the kind of campaigning it can do.
"So long as they don’t say 'vote for’ or ‘against’ the amendment, they don’t have to disclose their donors' names," Dean said.
Another route, which NOM has followed in the past, could be refusing to report names of donors who gave money to NOM, which was then donated to the in-state group registered to explicitly campaign in the election.
If Minnesota's 2012 campaign will be anything like Maine's 2009 battle over same-sex marriage, much of the money involved could come from out of state, particularly for groups opposing same-sex marriage. Reports filed with Maine's campaign finance watchdog show that the Maine group leading efforts against same-sex marriage received the lion's share of its donations from large organizations outside of Maine, chiefly from the National Organization for Marriage and the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland.
Anti-Amendment Groups Focus Fundraising in State
Mike Dean, the election watchdog, acknowledged that the same strategy of hiding donors could be used by anti-amendment groups, particularly as poll data suggests that a slim majority of Minnesotans oppose the amendment.
"If they’re able to make this the Waterloo for the gay marriage debate, the national LGBT community is going to want to invest a lot of resources in this," Dean said.
It's easy for large organizations to avoid transparency laws, Dean said, but OutFront Minnesota and its national partners don't have a history of doing that in the past. Anti-amendment groups have already filed with the state to form Minnesotans United for All Families, which is chaired by Monica Meyers of OutFront Minnesota, the state’s largest LGBT rights organization.
Minnesota LGBT leaders claim they will likely not be using much out-of-state dollars, chiefly because there are aren't many national LGBT groups that can raise what LGBT leaders predict will be a $5 to $10 million campaign, when they’re only one of six possible states who will be debating same-sex marriage at the ballot box in 2012.
"Multi-billion-dollar [fundraising] apparatuses just don’t exist in our community," said said state Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), who opposes the amendment. "Take our biggest [LGBT] organization, the Human Rights Campaign, compared to religious groups, it's still small. We have much less firepower compared to the other side."
In Maine, groups opposing the marriage ban raised over $4 million to support their cause, but only about $215,000 of that came from national LGBT groups, along with about $145,000 of "in-kind" campaign expenses.
Equality Maine Executive Director Betty Smith said most of her organization's $4 million war chest in 2009 came from large numbers of Mainers making small donations. With so many ballot measures trying to ban same-sex marriage or overturn similar bans in 2012, she said, this kind of strategy might be the only practical one for Minnesota groups to follow.
"There's a limited amount of money to go around," said Smith."The state that raises the most money through this small and mid-level [donation] strategy will have the kind of stamina for their campaign."