Joining the growing number of churches that have added their voices to the debate over same-sex marriages, last Sunday First United Methodist opened its doors for a public forum on the issue of marriage--specifically, on Measure 36. The event drew a small crowd of about 50 people, evenly split between members of the congregation and local gay rights supporters.

The event itself will hardly sway results in November. But what was significant is that the debate marked a unique break from an emerging trend of using churches as battering rams for Measure 36. It was an opportunity for a local church to open the floor for discussion on perceived morality, and demonstrated an openness not recently seen from area churches.

During the signature gathering process for Measure 36, several churches were accused of coercing parishioners to add their signatures to the initiative. Currently, there are several pending complaints with the Secretary of State against these churches for violating election laws. And while the In Defense of Marriage Coalition has attempted to keep their membership largely secretive, its cadre is largely composed of pastors for massive regional churches. Ray Cotton (New Hope Community Church), Frank Damazio (City Bible Church), and Dennis Tuuri (Reformation Covenant Church) are just a few of their members. All have preached sermons commanding their flocks to vote yes on 36. Unlike Ballot Measure 9's leadership two years ago, which was comprised of private citizens (such as Lon Mabon), the leadership of In Defense of Marriage signals a movement into more established and organized organizations.

The real shocker within the group's membership is T. Allen Bethel, head of the Maranatha Church in North Portland and the Albina Ministerial Association. The AMA is a police accountability and civil rights group formed in response to police shootings of Kendra James and James Jahar Perez.

When asked for further comment, In Defense of Marriage spokesperson Georgene Rice refused to speak with the Mercury, calling the paper unfair and unbalanced, and then stomping away. She did, however, provide this gem while taking part in Sunday's forum: When asked by an audience member how she'd feel if her daughter was a lesbian, she replied, "I would be sad if I had a daughter who was gay, the same way I'd feel bad if she was obese."