With less than a month to go before Minnesotans vote on a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman, Richfield Lutheran churches remain divided over the amendment, their support or opposition split firmly along denominational lines.
While the city’s four Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) churches are—as a result of a vote taken by the larger ELCA Minneapolis synod last February—officially opposed to the amendment, churches that are part of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) are supporting it.
In Richfield both Berea Lutheran Church and Mount Calvary Lutheran are part of the LCMS’s southern district synod, which in June voted to support the marriage amendment.
The four ELCA churches in Richfield include Oak Grove Lutheran, Woodlake Lutheran, House of Prayer Lutheran and Richfield Evangelical Lutheran (which is located in Minneapolis but serves a number of Richfield residents).
Despite their contrasting official positions, pastors of churches from both denominations say the issue is far from settled among their congregants.
“Those types of decisions in the church never apply to individual members,” said Pastor Tom Zarth of Oak Grove Lutheran Church, referring to the Minneapolis synod’s vote to officially oppose the marriage amendment. “We don’t suggest that our members ought to go along with that decision—it’s still a matter of personal conscience.”
Pastor Mark Neumann of Berea Lutheran said that November’s marriage amendment vote has already been the subject of discussion at his church, something he expects will continue as the election nears.
“People are discussing it from time to time. I’ve been privy to some of the discussions among parishioners, and it’s come up in Bible class discussions,” Neumann said. “People have talked a little about their feelings, about how they’ll approach it as voters.”
In contrast, leaders of several ELCA churches in Richfield reported that, despite their church’s official opposition to it, the marriage amendment hadn’t yet been the topic of debate amongst congregants.
“People kind of keep their political views to themselves in this congregation,” Zarth said about Oak Grove parishioners. “There really isn’t any buzz (about the marriage amendment) at all.”
Pastor Rolf Olson of Richfield Evangelical Church said he hadn’t heard anything particular about the amendment from parishioners either, even from those who might be directly impacted by the vote.
“We have gay and lesbian members here, but they are not making a big public spectacle about the marriage amendment,” Olson said. “They keep under the radar pretty much, at least on this issue.”
Pastors Speak Out
Although he usually declines to discuss political issues publicly, Olson said the marriage amendment vote is one thing he feels compelled to speak out about.
“I rarely venture forth in the public arena on political issues, but on this one I will,” Olson said. “My personal motivation [for speaking out] is just the fact that denying legal benefits of marriage to same-gendered partners is blatantly discriminatory and very unfair.”
Olson emphasized that, regardless of his church’s opposition to the amendment—and despite his own decision to speak out against the amendment personally—it was important that discussion of the issue be conducted in a civil manner.
“I think it’s much more effective to engage people in conversation than just to yell at them,” he said. “To respect people is empowering—to sneer at them or treat them as less than fully human is very counterproductive.”
Olson and Zarth said they were aware of the significant differences in opinion that exist over the marriage amendment—both among their own congregants, as well as between area churches. Although both pastors confirmed that they were personally opposed to the amendment, they emphasized that it remained important for the church—and leaders like themselves—to remain respectful of such differences.
“I’ll tell you that, of the churches in Richfield, we know we vary on this,” Zarth said. “And we’ve been very respectful in talking about it.”
As part of outreach efforts surrounding the amendment, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11 Olson and Zarth, along with other local church leaders, will be participating in a civil discussion about the marriage amendment vote. The discussion will take place at Richfield Evangelical Lutheran Church and will be moderated by Star Tribune columnist Gail Rosenblum.
“No arguing, it will be a civil conversation,” Olson said. “If someone comes and they’re a flamethrower, they’ll probably be asked to leave—or at least to tone it down.”
While Pastor Neumann declined to comment on his own position regarding the marriage amendment, he said that he will continue to discuss the issue with parishioners.
"I’m going to encourage people to weigh the matter in their hearts and in their mind as they go to the ballot box," Neumann said. "I'm confident in people who are well-versed in the word of God and their responsibilities as Christian citizens to make the right choice."
Whatever the outcome of November's elections, Neumann said that he expects the debate over marriage will continue—in his church and others—regardless.
“Whether the amendment passes or fails, I think people will still be discussing marriage and the agreement that societies and churches have with one another,” he said.
Editor's Note: This is the final article in a series of article regarding local churches' positions on the proposed amendment. See the related article section below for more story links.
- Richfield Methodists Confront Gay Marriage Differently
- Local Priest Says Churches Are ‘Puppets of the State’ When It Comes to Marriage
- Richfield Baptist Leaders Support 2012 Marriage Amendment Measure