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For religious conservatives, Proposition 8 is their line in the sand.

While the battle over same-sex marriage has been all but invisible in this year's presidential race, it is raging like a wind-whipped wildfire in California.

Conservative religious leaders from across the country are pouring time, talent and millions of dollars into the state in support of Proposition 8, which would ban same-sex marriage. They are hoping to reverse a California Supreme Court ruling in May that gave same-sex couples permission to marry, resulting in thousands of gay weddings.

Similar marriage amendments are on the ballot in Arizona and Florida in November. But religious conservatives have cast the California campaign as the decisive last stand, warning in stunningly apocalyptic terms of dire consequences to the entire nation if Proposition 8 does not pass.

California, they say, sets cultural trends for the rest of the country and even the world. If same-sex marriage is allowed to become entrenched there, they warn, there will be no going back.

"This vote on whether we stop the gay-marriage juggernaut in California is Armageddon," said Charles W. Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries and an eminent evangelical voice, speaking to pastors in a video promoting Proposition 8. "We lose this, we are going to lose in a lot of other ways, including freedom of religion."

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobby based in Washington, said, "It's more important than the presidential election."

In television advertisements, rallies, highway billboards, sermons and phone banks, supporters of Proposition 8 are warning that if it does not pass, churches that refuse to marry same-sex couples will be sued and lose their tax-exempt status. Ministers will be jailed if they preach against homosexuality. Parents will have no right to prevent their children from being taught in school about same-sex marriage.

The "No on 8" forces, which include many liberal religious leaders, dismiss these claims as scare tactics and without basis in legal precedent.

"The idea that we would be forced as clergy to perform a marriage that was against our conscience, or that a church would lose its tax-exempt status is ridiculous," said the Rev. Karen Sapio, the minister of Claremont Presbyterian Church in Southern California. "If you look dispassionately at the record, there are a lot of churches with policies that are at odds with civil law."

She continued, "I have not heard of a single Catholic church forced to marry someone who has been divorced, or a rabbi forced to perform an interfaith marriage or an evangelical church forced to marry a couple who has been living together."

Nevertheless, the "Yes on 8" campaign has brought over from Sweden a pastor named Ake Green, who a few years ago was sentenced to a month in prison under Sweden's law banning hate speech, because he gave a sermon denouncing homosexuality. Green's testimony was featured in a 90-minute "Yes on 8" satellite simulcast that was recently downlinked to 170 churches throughout the state.

"He is a symbol of what is ahead," said the Rev. Jim Garlow, the senior pastor of Skyline Church in the San Diego area, a leading organizer of the "Yes" ranks.

"When you have laws that make homosexual marriage a protected class, then the government has a compelling interest to normalize that and must declare anything in opposition to that hate speech," said Garlow, who hosted both the recent simulcast and regular conference calls with as many as 2,000 pastors, to motivate the ranks.

Leaders on both sides say they sense that the election will be close. On one thing they agree: polls in every other state that has had a marriage amendment on the ballot have consistently undercounted voters who oppose same-sex marriage by significant percentages.

In Florida, a St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9/Miami Herald poll last week shows 59 percent of likely voters supporting the marriage amendment. The measure requires 60 percent to pass.

A funding blitz

The text of Proposition 8 in California says: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California." The campaign to pass it is organized primarily through churches and other houses of worship. The opposition is built on a wider array of power blocs, including gay and civil rights groups, unions, businesses and corporations, ethnic lobbies and Hollywood - as well as religious groups.

However, when it comes to fundraising, the ranks of those who oppose same-sex marriage were surpassing the supporters' side - at least until gay rights groups sounded the alarm this month. Each side had raised more than $25-million by mid-October, but new figures are due out today that are likely to show big jumps in the final stretch.

National religious organizations including the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal group; Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based ministry led by James Dobson; and the American Family Association, based in Mississippi and led by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, have been major contributors to the "Yes on 8" campaign.

In June, the top three leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent a letter strongly urging members to donate time and money, and Mormons responded with many millions.

Preachers from other parts of the country have dropped everything and moved to California in recent months. Lou Engle, who leads TheCall, a charismatic prayer ministry in Washington and Kansas City, Mo., with a large following among youth, moved with his seven children to California in September. He is holding large prayer rallies up and down the state, urging people to pray and fast for the 40 days leading up to the election. Some people are giving up solid foods; others are giving up clothes shopping, or their favorite television shows.

'Unseen realm'

"We believe there is a spiritual battle in an unseen realm, and that's why I've called for united prayer for divine intervention," Engle said. "It's a defining moment for the definition of marriage in American history."

The fight for Proposition 8 was initiated in San Diego by evangelical Christian megachurch ministers like Garlow. But they have brought together an impressive statewide coalition that will not disappear with this election: Hispanic, Asian and black evangelicals; Roman Catholics; Mormons; conservatives within mainline Protestant churches; and a smattering of Orthodox Jews.

The Rev. David Chi, a pastor in San Gabriel, helped to mobilize about 2,000 Chinese Christians on Oct. 19 to turn out for rallies in the Los Angeles area.

"If same-sex marriage stays, it will affect our children, our descendants," he said. "Chinese normally we don't speak too much. But it's such a moment that it's so important to give our voice out."