CLEARWATER — A group of interfaith leaders pledged Wednesday to use their pulpits and influence to defeat Amendment 2, the constitutional measure that would essentially ban gay marriage in Florida.
The ministers and rabbis agreed to preach sermons, organize town hall meetings and ask their members to volunteer to work phone banks. The clerics also plan to hold a public rally on Oct. 26 to outline what they describe as the amendment's dangers.
Sixteen leaders gathered for Wednesday's strategy session, just a week after a group of Baptist pastors and other ministers met in Gibsonton to launch a statewide campaign to rally conservative Christians in favor of the amendment.
That effort, which drew about 50 people, was one of six planned statewide.
The leaders who gathered in Clearwater admit they lack money and organization.
Representatives from Fairness for All Families told them to get the word out that the amendment would do more than outlaw gay marriage. They argue that it would adversely affect people of all religions, sexual orientations and ages who are coupled but unmarried.
"This will prohibit the Legislature from conducting civil unions or anything that would give, by law, any substantial rights to partners," said Beth Fountain, the Tampa Bay field organizer for Fairness for All Families. "This goes well beyond the gay marriage issue."
The amendment would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and would not recognize any other legal pairing.
The Rev. Tom Messer, a Jacksonville pastor who is organizing the conservative Christian effort, said the amendment's opponents are using deceptive arguments.
"Amendment 2 is not going to take away any existing rights and benefits from anyone," said Messer, who has now met with more than 200 pastors throughout the state. "It's not changing the law."
The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Clearwater, hosted Wednesday's meeting. He called the leaders together after he learned about the conservative Christian leaders' efforts.
The gathering drew Christian and Jewish leaders from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, representing a diverse mix of denominations, including two synagogues, the Unity Church, the Potter's House and the United Church of Christ.
Though determined, their opposition has a head start. The amendment proponents have been organizing for nearly two moths, offering yard signs, a Web site detailing suggestions for sermons and materials to distribute to congregations.
On Wednesday, Fountain provided the clergy with yard signs and other materials but said her organization had run out of campaign materials.
Still, Janamanchi says he is not worried.
"I'm not intimidated," he said. "If anything, I feel energized."
The interfaith leaders said they feel compelled to show voters, both religious and secular, that believers are not monolithic in their politics.
"People of faith need to respond to a discriminatory amendment that has been backed by another group of faith-based people," said the Rev. Phyllis Hunt, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in Tampa. "I don't want one small section of the whole faith-based community to be the only voice speaking on an issue. Conservative Christians are not the only faith-based voice."
Several of the ministers pledged to use their pulpits to speak about the issue on Oct. 19, the day before early voting begins. That is the same day Messer's group has designated as "marriage Sunday," asking pastors to preach sermons in favor of the measure.
Rabbi Stephen Moch, who leads Congregation B'Nai Emmunah in Tarpon Springs, said he plans to give a sermon on the issue at a Friday service prior to that Sunday.
"It's critical for us not to succumb to the politics of fear and exclusion and to stand up for people's freedoms and rights … and reach out to people in love," Moch said. "That's the true religious response, as opposed to a reactionary response which unfortunately is what many religious leaders on the right are evoking from their congregants."
Sherri Day can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.