GIBSONTON — With a new poll raising doubts about the prospects of an amendment essentially banning gay marriage in Florida, backers of the measure on Monday urged pastors at a Baptist church to mobilize their congregations.
Representatives from Yes2Marriage.org told pastors to hold prayer services, pass out yard signs, conduct voter registration drives and recruit volunteers to help with campaign efforts.
The activists urged pastors to preach the virtues of traditional unions on what they have dubbed "Marriage Sunday" — Oct. 19, the day before early voting begins. Religious leaders were told they could find sample sermons at the campaign Web site.
A new poll shows a majority of Floridians support the measure, but the number falls short of the 60 percent a constitutional amendment needs for passage.
"We have a pulpit; we have a captive audience," the Rev. Tom Messer, head of Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, told the pastors. "You have an opportunity to influence them. … If we can get this passed on the ballot, I think this changes the landscape of the future."
Messer, one of the leaders of the statewide effort, said he came up with the idea to rally pastors six weeks ago. Since then, he and his team have targeted more than 6,000 churches, including 3,000 Southern Baptist congregations. The amendment defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman and does not recognize any other pairing as a legal union.
Monday's meeting, dubbed a "Pastor's Briefing," was one of six talks scheduled to occur around the state. The group also plans to reach out to pastors in Jacksonville, Orlando, Fort Myers, Miami and Crestview.
The meetings began on the same day that a poll by the independent Quinnipiac University Polling Institute showed 55 percent of Florida voters support the ban. Forty-one percent oppose it and 4 percent are undecided. In an earlier poll in June, Quinnipiac found 58 percent of voters for the measure.
The new poll, conducted Sept. 2-4, included 1,427 Florida voters and had a margin of error of 2.6 percentage points.
Election observers say the poll shows that the Amendment 2 campaign faces an uphill battle.
"If I were the same sex (ban) proponents, I'd be worried," said Quinnipiac pollster Peter A. Brown. "One assumes they thought this thing was going to be a slam dunk. And clearly, it's not going to be a slam dunk."
While ballot initiative experts hold that support generally fades with time, it is also true that many people are just starting to pay attention to the election.
And the measure could get a boost from John McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin has excited the conservative base in ways that McCain had not.
"Every vote is going to be important on Amendment 2," David C. Gibbs III, a lawyer who represented Terri Schiavo's parents, told the pastors Monday. "You've got to get that 60 percent. This is not an issue I see popping up every year. I really believe in this election we have one shot to entrench it in our Constitution."
Gibbs assured pastors that they could speak in favor of the amendment from their pulpits. He said IRS tax code forbids pastors from using churches to campaign for political candidates, but the law allows them to stump on behalf of moral or social issues.
The measure's opponents cheered the latest poll results. They also dispute the argument that the amendment's defeat will open the door for radical change or cause a loss of religious freedoms.
"What they're proposing is a radical change," said Derek Newton, campaign manager of Florida Red & Blue, which opposes the measure. "What they're proposing is very damaging to millions of Floridians. It's a fundamentally bad amendment and a dangerous amendment, and we are hopeful and optimistic that the voters will reject it."
Proponents are determined to get the word out. They are asking pastors to buy $150 "church action kits" that include 25 yard signs, 50 bumper stickers, a DVD for church services and a CD "loaded" with promotional fliers and bulletin inserts.
At First Baptist Church in Gibsonton, the polling data spurred some local pastors to commit to taking bold action.
The Rev. Kerry Nance, pastor of Southside Baptist Church in South Tampa, plans to preach about the importance of passing the amendment.
"A lot of people do not know the issues," Nance said. "If people do know the issues, it would motivate them to be more apt to go vote."
The Rev. Mac Clements, pastor of First Baptist of Gibsonton, said he reserves his sermons for preaching the Gospels. Still, he plans to speak out on behalf of the amendment.
"I'll be a little more aggressive not only encouraging our people to be registered to vote, but let them know to support this amendment and to vote for it," Clements said. "As Christians, we need to help set the agenda."
Sherri Day can be reached at email@example.com or (813)226-3405.