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Gay Marriage Amendment Splits Richfield Lutheran Churches

Two different Lutheran denominations in Richfield have taken opposing positions regarding November's ballot initiative.

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.

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Related articles:

  • 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
Barry October 10, 2012 at 01:13 PM
So these churches that take a political stand for or against should have their TAX code taken away...I dont care which side it is, the church need to stay out of the politics or harbor groups that use their facility as a base of operation. Or let the chickens come home to roast...
Caitlin Burgess October 10, 2012 at 02:39 PM
In other articles I've read people have made similar comments, Barry. But I think some would also argue that this is a moral or social issue that has been made into a political issue. Does anyone agree with that? Does anyone agree with Barry? Different insight?
Drew Miller October 10, 2012 at 08:24 PM
There was an interesting New York Times article about the fight against gay marriage today--those who've been following this issue may want to check it out, and get back to me and Caitlin with further thoughts! http://nyti.ms/T5B6bD
steve James November 01, 2012 at 04:38 AM
If you read between the lines a little you can see how eg Pastor Neuman is leaving wiggle room to change to supporting marriage equality under civil law. its a matter of getting the congregations behind the issue. BTW about 5 years ago I met a conservative Lutheran minister and asked him if they did marriages for gay people. He thought I wanted such a ceremony. HE took out his card and wrote a name and phone number of another lutheran minister / church. And told me that while his church didnt do such marriages, the other one would. Cant ask for anyhting finer then that . Compare it to the catholc church which rants all the time about 'redefining marriage" Which in MD we did in 1864 when Jews , quakers etc could finaly get married, the law until then said only a christian pastor could do a marriage ceremony. It wasnt until 1867 that we expanded marriage to black people. It wasnt until 1967 that we expanded marriage to inter-racial people. time to expand it to all committed couples of legal age. I met a pastor of a

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