Minnesota Family Council sought LGBT criminalization before settling for banning gay marriage
The Minnesota Family Council (MFC) may have spent the last eight years pushing for the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that Minnesotans will vote on in November, but since its founding, the group has fought to uphold antiquated laws against homosexuality and sodomy that were often used against LGBT people.
**Formed as Coalition of Concerned Christians
**The Minnesota Family Council got its start in 1982 as a group of conservative Christians concerned that laws criminalizing gays and lesbians would be overturned.
“I believe we need to be true to our roots and let who we are grow out of that. The Berean League, as we were known, was founded locally by four people in 1982 as a ‘Coalition of Concerned Christians,’ former Chief Operating Officer of the Minnesota Family Council, Mike Christenson, told that organization’s newspaper, the Pro-Family News in 2001. ”This was in response to the very narrow defeat at the legislature of an attempt to repeal the Minnesota sodomy law.”
The effort to repeal the criminalization of homosexuality was supported by the Minnesota Council of Churches in 1982 . Amidst the perceived liberalism of mainstream Christianity in Minnesota, the Coalition of Concerned Christians was formed, which then blossomed into the Berean League.
Wendell and Roberta Brown were among the early founders and they joined the Rev. Morris Vaagenes of North Heights Lutheran Church in Roseville and former legislator Wayne Oloft to found the League. The foursome set out to block the planned repeal of sodomy laws and were successful; the repeal was narrowly defeated in the Minnesota Legislature in 1983.
Berean League’s literature painted gay people as diseased
The Berean League set up shop in St. Paul, where it published Roger J. Magnuson’s “Are Gay Rights Right?” a work that has been a staple of religious right groups for decades and has been discredited by civil rights groups.
The book, first published in 1985 and revamped in 1990 with a “special AIDs supplement,” contains chapters such as “What do homosexuals do?,” “Where do homosexuals do it?,” and “With whom does the homosexual do it?” The book collected the most extreme examples of sexual activity from pornography, police reports and research articles from before psychological organizations had rejected homosexuality as a mental illness, to paint gay men as diseased and psychologically deviant.
The book took advantage of the HIV epidemic in gay men to spur fears that “innocent” Americans may become infected.
Magnuson and his book played key roles in the 1992 Colorado ballot initiative that barred laws preventing discrimination against LGBT people. That initiative passed by the voters but was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996.
In 1990, Dr. Ralph Blair of Evangelicals Concerned, reviewed Magnuson’s book, which argued that gay people weren’t discriminated against. Blair knocked down “outrageous statements” by Magnuson, such as that “one-fifth of all homosexuals admitted to having sexual contact, or at least masturbating, with animals.”
Blair condemned the false information in Magnuson’s book: ” These statements may remind one of segregationists’ warnings against racial “mongrelization,” appeals to Bible verses to support slavery, and papal decrees against sex with Jews and Protestants. How can a Christian write such a book? How can Christians buy into such a book?”
The book is currently out of print, but the publishing rights are still held by the Berean League and, by extension, the Minnesota Family Council.
The Minnesota Family Council took heat earlier this year when it reprinted much of Magnuson’s work on its website. After defending the information that accused gays and lesbians of engaging in bestiality, incest and other criminal practices, the group took that part of their web page down.
The Berean League also put together a report titled, Some Things You May Not Know About Homosexuality, which remained on the Minnesota Family Council website at least through 2003. It was used extensively in Oregon’s 1992 Abnormal Behavior Initiative also known as measure 9.
Measure 9 set “a standard for Oregon’s youth that recognizes homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism as abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse and that these behaviors are to be discouraged and avoided.” The citizens of Oregon defeated the measure.
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**Criminalizing gays and lesbians
**A former legislator, Wayne Oloft was the founder and executive director of the Berean League. Following on the organization’s 1983 success in maintaining criminalization laws, the group continued to push for the laws’ enforcement.
He told the Minnesota Daily in 1985 that “unnatural sex is a prolific disease spreader,” and added criminalization laws should be looked at and perhaps sex within heterosexual marriage should be exempted.
Oloft told the Washington Post in 1987 that sodomy “often involves promiscuity and that means increasing the risk of venereal disease or AIDS.”
“Repealing the law would subtly validate homosexual behavior, and deal a strike against the heterosexual family which is the prime vehicle for passing on moral values in our society,” Oloft said.
Minnesota at the time carried a 1-year maximum sentence on conviction on a sodomy charge and a $3,000 fine. The law technically applied to anyone not engaged in any penis-vagina sex, but was used selectively against gay men and lesbians.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the law was used to raid gays bars, deny child custody to gays and lesbians, terminate the employment of gays and lesbians and justify legal discrimination against gay people.
Legislators attempted unsuccessfully to repeal the anti-gay laws again in the 1990s and met with stiff opposition from the Berean League, which changed its name to the Minnesota Family Council in order to align itself more closely with James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.
“I think the laws set a purpose of setting community standards,” Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council told the Associated Press in 1999. “It’s ridiculous to eliminate social standards.”
During the 1999 legislative session, there was movement to abolish “silly” and outdated laws, including the sodomy law.
“We think the sodomy and fornication laws should stay in statute, and there are legitimate reasons why,” Prichard told the Star Tribune at the time. “All kinds of consensual behavior—drugs, prostitution, incest—has sanctions against it because of negative social consequences.”
In 2000, the ACLU of Minnesota sued to overturn the sodomy law. Prichard and the Family Council opposed the lawsuit and its newly formed Northstar Legal Center filed documents defending the law.
“We oppose the effort and believe what they couldn’t accomplish through the legislative process, now they’re trying the legal angle,” Prichard told the Star Tribune in 2000. He predicted that the lawsuit would fail saying, “We think this law is clearly constitutional.”
But, the ACLU won its case. A district judge struck down the law and Attorney General Mike Hatch and the Ventura administration did not appeal.
“Laws are a reflection of where society’s at,” Prichard told the Minnesota Daily. “It defies logic to think that our founders would create a law that the state Constitution would be in violation against.”
Jordan Lorence, an attorney for the Family Councils’ Northstar Legal Center, added in an editorial in the Pioneer Press: “[T]he framers of the Minnesota Constitution wrote into the text that the right of conscience should never be construed by courts to protect acts of ‘licentiousness.’ The framers of the Minnesota Constitution would have understood ‘licentiousness’ to include sodomy. Therefore, it is basically impossible to argue that the intent of the framers of the Minnesota Constitution was to protect sodomy and remove the state legislature’s power to criminalize it.”
Minnesota Family Council shifting gears
When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws across the country in 2003, Prichard predicted dire consequences.
“It’s an unbelievably bad decision,” Prichard told the Pioneer Press. “It’s a breathtaking leap in judicial activism. I think it has enormous implications beyond just the sodomy law. If they’re going to protect private consensual sex between adults, what does that say about adult incest, polygamy, bigamy, or ultimately, even prostitution?”
Prichard even went to the defense of then-Sen. Rick Santorum in 2003 whose statements about gays and lesbians riled many. Santorum equated the right to consensual gay sex with the right to bigamy, polygamy, incest and adultery.
“Senator Santorum is correct,” Prichard said in a statement. “There are negative consequences to society endorsing homosexual behavior. It has implications not only for the health of individuals but the well being of society.”
Prichard continued, ”This attack on Santorum is merely another attempt by gay advocates to deflect attention from the underlying issue. The truth is that homosexual behavior undermines a healthy and stable society just as bigamy, polygamy, incest and adultery do.”
The Minnesota Family Council’s push to criminalize consensual sex hasn’t been limited to gays and lesbians. In 2009, there was a legislative push to repeal adultery laws that are still on the books, which many deemed sexist. The Family Council, however, supported it.
“We think they’re important. They send a message,” Prichard said of adultery laws. “When you are dealing with a marriage, it’s not just a private activity or a private institution. It’s a very public institution. It has enormous consequences for the rest of society.”
The Minnesota Family Council has shifted gears over the past 8 years and has taken the lead in pushing for a constitutional amendment banning marriage for same-sex couples.
The group’s CEO John Helmberger and Communications Director Chuck Darrell have taken positions as chair and spokesperson for the Minnesota for Marriage coalition.
That coalition, along with the National Organization for Marriage and the Minnesota Catholic Conference is expected to spend millions in support of the amendment which will be on the ballot in November 2012.