Proposition is put to test in swing state

Amendment: But Ohio's conservative Christians don't uniformly back proposal.

Banning Gay Marriage

Election 2004

17 days until Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 2

October 16, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

MASON, Ohio - Next month, Jessica Kurtz will head to the polls for only the second time in her life. The main attraction is not the presidential race, but a chance to vote for an amendment to Ohio's constitution that would ban gay marriage.

"I think [gay marriage] opens up a big door for Satan," said Kurtz, a 33-year-old evangelical Christian who homeschools her three young children. "If I can do anything about the law to stop it, I want to."

Ohio is one of 11 states with a gay marriage ban on the ballot next month. Political scientists say the measure is firing up conservative Christians here and could help turn out more Bush supporters in a hard-fought, swing state where polls show a close race for president.

The referendum is also exposing divisions in the evangelical community, where even some who believe homosexuality is a sin question whether the church should associate itself so closely with such a partisan issue.

"The closer you get to the dirt of politics, the more tainted the Gospel becomes," says Steve Carr, who ministers to young adults at Christ's Church at Mason, a suburban Cincinnati mega-church where Kurtz attends services. "Our job is to teach Christ and win souls."

Political observers who think the marriage amendment could drive up Christian turnout point to the hundreds of thousands of people who signed petitions to put it on the ballot here. They also cite the 400,000 extra voters who went to the polls in the Missouri primary last summer to help pass a similar measure.

Turnout `surge'

John Green, a professor at the University of Akron and one of the nation's leading analysts of religion and politics, estimates the referendum could increase turnout in Ohio by several percentage points - or more than 100,000 voters.

"I really think from all the conservative Christians I've talked to, there is going to be a surge," said Green, who noted that at least 20 percent of Ohioans are members of evangelical denominations such as the Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God.

The amendment is expected to draw strong support from suburban evangelical mega-churches as well as smaller congregations in the Appalachian mountains of southeastern Ohio, the state's Bible Belt. One of the most active parishes is Christ's Church at Mason, about a half-hour drive north of Cincinnati.

Christ's Church sits in Warren County, a farming area rapidly evolving into an affluent exurb of subdivisions, strip shopping centers and office parks. On its Web site, the church is described as nondenominational and belonging to "an independent church movement." The congregation built the church several years ago on a former bean field across from Lexington Park, a development of $300,000 to $400,000 mansions where Bush-Cheney signs dot the lawns.

In 2000, Warren County gave Bush 70 percent of its vote - the third-highest of any jurisdiction in Ohio.

Fight of a generation

Glenn Crabtree is one the most ardent opponents of gay marriage at Christ's Church.

Crabtree sees gay marriage as the fight of his generation.

Inspired by the issue, last summer he helped gather 870 petition signatures from the church's 1,000 adults, then spent a week at the Warren County Fair, helping to gather another 2,000. Crabtree, 47, also became a first-time presidential campaign volunteer, helping out at a Bush-Cheney phone bank.

"We are doing everything we can do to energize the Christian base, and I'm to some extent living proof that it is working," said Crabtree, a bear of a man with an engaging smile. "I'm done sitting on the sidelines."

Crabtree, an engineer, says the mobilization of churches such as his underscores the important role congregations must play in politics and the drive to reverse what he sees as the decline of the American family.

"We cannot stand by and allow other groups to decide what our society is going to be while we sit back and believe the lie that we should not be a part of the process," said Crabtree. "If Christians can't stand up in this case, there may be no case in which we can."

Most evangelicals believe in the inerrancy of Christian Scripture, which excoriates homosexual practice. Consequently, they are among the most motivated opponents of gay marriage and biggest supporters of President Bush, who has backed a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

Sen. John Kerry has said he opposes gay marriage as well but does not want a constitutional amendment banning it.

At Christ's Church, older members back the state's proposed gay marriage amendment. But support drops with the parishioner's ages. At a recent Sunday school class for people in their 20s and 30s, most said they would vote for President Bush, but only half backed the amendment.

Steve Carr, the church's pastor for young adults, said he believes homosexuality is a sin based on Scripture, but he declined to sign the petition and hasn't decided how to vote on the amendment.

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