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Onward Christian Voters

As same-sex marriage foes ready for a new crusade, how many old allies will follow?

In 2007, host Ira Glass of This American Life came to Portland on a book tour and was scheduled to speak at the 1,500-seat New Hope Community Church in Happy Valley. He asked for a change of venue when he learned the evangelical church had three years earlier fought to pass a ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in Oregon.

When Kurt Kroon arrived the following year to start work as a pastor at New Hope, he says he was surprised at the church's reputation as anti-gay.

"I was shocked that this was one of the dominant online conversations," Kroon says. "That's just not what we want to be known for."

Most evangelicals still believe marriage should remain between one man and one woman. But many now question the intense political focus on same-sex marriage that drove the ban a decade ago.

"Ten years ago, I wouldn't have believed I would have this feeling, but I think I'm with a lot of people in the evangelical camp," says Janet Cotton, also a pastor at New Hope. "I don't want people to think I've sold out my belief system, but I don't want to be harsh and judgmental."

Today, the Oregon Family Council, a key proponent of the 2004 same-sex marriage ban, is betting its evangelical base will rally behind an initiative allowing businesses to refuse to provide products and services—such as wedding cakes, flower arrangements and tuxedos and gowns—for same-sex wedding ceremonies.

But some of the state's most prominent evangelical pastors say times have changed, and the Oregon Family Council can't count on their congregations to fall in line.

"I honestly think they misjudged this," says Gerry Breshears, a professor of theology at Western Seminary in Portland. "Ten years ago, they carried a lot of political weight, and I don't think they do anymore."

The Oregon Family Council, which led the 2004 fight for the marriage ban, is backing the new measure. The group needs more than 87,000 signatures by July 3 to get the measure on the November ballot. The measure's ballot title still requires approval by the Secretary of State's Office before petitioners can start gathering signatures.

Tim Nashif, co-founder of the Oregon Family Council, says he's not worried about getting the measure on the ballot.

"People underestimate how fast we can move," Nashif says. "At least they did until 2004."

That year, Nashif led the effort to put Oregon's same-sex marriage ban, Measure 36, on the ballot by collecting 244,000 signatures in just five weeks.

But Breshears and others say many evangelical churches have moved away from the same-sex marriage fight, which many see as lost.

"Historically, there's been an unhealthy alignment of white evangelical churches with right-wing Republicans," says Josh Butler, a pastor at Imago Dei Community in Portland. "We're not trying to swing left, but we're trying to create a space where followers can wrestle with this."

Imago Dei and other evangelical churches have worked in partnership with Kevin Palau, an evangelical leader and president of the Luis Palau Association known for his friendship with Portland's openly gay former mayor, Sam Adams. 

Palau says he and other evangelical leaders held a series of meetings with Adams and other city officials beginning in 2007 to shift from political issues to social ills such as hunger, homelessness and health care.

"We don't want to be known for what we're against, but what we're for," Palau says. "We're seeing so much good being done by serving the community that there's less energy being given to fighting political battles."

Most Americans see evangelicals as unfriendly to gays and lesbians, according to a study released last month by the Public Religious Research Institute. But while fewer than one in five older evangelicals supports same-sex marriage, nearly half of millennial evangelicals do.

"Evangelical America is changing," says Tom Krattenmaker, author of The Evangelicals You Don't Know. "It's becoming less and less like the situation we saw a decade ago. You won't find evangelicals marching in lockstep."

Adds Breshears: "Ten years ago, there was a feeling we could make a difference. Now there is not. Older evangelicals are saying, 'We've been run over by the steamroller.' Younger ones are saying, 'What's the issue?'"

Nashif says there are still plenty of evangelical churches in Oregon that will engage politically on the question of same-sex marriage and the Oregon Family Council's new initiative.

"We don't need the cooperation of pastors, and if they feel like they don't want to participate," he says. "If they do not feel their churches should get involved in a public-policy issue, I'd be the last person to ask them to do it."

Initiative spokeswoman Teresa Harke says a 2013 survey conducted by Gateway Communications, a consulting company owned by Nashif and fellow Oregon Family Council co-founder Michael White, showed 75 percent support for a measure that allows businesses to object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

Cliff Good, pastor at Valley View Evangelical Church in Clackamas, says pastors struggle to respond to the quickening cultural shift.

At 66, Good counts himself among the older set. He opposes redefining marriage away from tradition, and says he's glad Oregon law protects him from being forced to officiate for gay couples. 

"But if I own a business that sells cakes, that's a whole different issue to me," Good says. “That’s not a marriage issue. That’s a business.”