BEAVERTON, Ohio – Ken Keeley spends his Sunday mornings at church — not just to worship, but to collect signatures for a ballot measure that would amend Oregon's constitution to ban gay marriage.
Keeley, one of roughly 2,000 members at the evangelical Beaverton Christian Church, describes himself as "not that political."
But he says the issue of same-sex marriage (search) — and what it means to much of Oregon's religious community — drove him to join the petiti to churches for support of their efforts to legally define marriage as between a man and a woman, a move that political analysts call savvy.
But some churches that support gay rights are worried the strategy will send the wrong message, while others have questioned the ethics and legality of bringing politics to the pulpit.
In Oregon, the Defense of Marriage Coalition (search) has just two weeks left to collect the 100,840 valid signatures needed to place an amendment banning gay marriage on the November ballot. They're counting on 1,500 Oregon churches for help.
Organizers won't say how many they've collected so far, because the signature-validation process makes it difficult to get an accurate count.
"We're optimistic and we're hopeful," said Tim Nashif, the group's political director.
Chris Stewart, whose group, the Arkansas Marriage Amendment Committee (search), is leading efforts to ban gay marriage there, describes the petition drive as a "pre-emptive strike."
"We have seen what has begun in our culture across the nation," Stewart said. "And we realize it is coming to 'a town near you."'
Volunteers based in Little Rock, Ark., have already collected 109,000 signatures — 28,250 more than is needed by the July 2 deadline for a ballot measure there. Two church-based groups have yet to turn in about 25,000 more signatures, Stewart said.
In Michigan, volunteers with the Lansing-based group Citizens for the Protection of Marriage (search) had signed up 130,000 people by the end of May. They need 317,000 valid signatures.
And the Montana Family Foundation (search) in Laurel, Mont., has collected more than half of the 41,029 signatures needed to get its constitutional amendment on the November ballot.
Recent polls in Michigan, Montana, and Ohio show voters support a marriage amendment. There has been no such poll in Arkansas, but Stewart says the Bible Belt (search) state doesn't need one.
Political analysts say visiting churches gives signature collectors access to a friendly, receptive audience.
"It's a very, very politically astute move," said Laura Olson, a political science professor at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. She edited a 2001 book on the role of the clergy in U.S. politics. "You know you're going to have a particular set of people who are going to be 95 percent in favor on this issue," she said.
The gay marriage debate has forged connections among congregations as disparate as Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Marriage is at the very core of who we are as people of faith," said Phil Burress, whose Cincinnati-based group, Citizens for Community Values (search), is leading the petition drive in Ohio. Volunteers there have to turn in nearly 323,000 signatures by Aug. 4.
But Rev. Tara Wilkins, an independent Portland pastor, says the churches' stance against gay marriage mistakenly gives the impression that no Christian congregations welcome gays.
"It sends the message that there is no room in organized religion for people who are gay, lesbian or transgendered. That's the wrong message," said Wilkins, director of the Community of Welcoming Congregations, who attends a local United Church of Christ. Her organization represents 44 congregations in the Portland metropolitan area, ranging from mainline Protestant churches to Jewish synagogues.
Wilkins and her partner, Carol Issacs, were among more than 3,000 same-sex couples who tied the knot in Portland in March and April, after Multnomah County commissioners decided to begin issuing marriage licenses to gays and lesbians.
Roey Thorpe, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, a Portland-based gay rights group, said the church-based effort "raises questions for me about how appropriate it is for people to use the ballot measure process to advance their religious views."
But Keeley, the volunteer at Beaverton Christian Church in Oregon, says he has no doubt that the gay marriage ban will reach the ballot.
"People are sincere about their beliefs," he said. "They want to make a change."