Two years ago, Jason Scalzi volunteered to serve a tour with the Air National Guard in Iraq.
Now back home, the 35-year-old has signed up for what he says is a moral battle on home soil: He has enlisted as a Minuteman - that is, a Marriage Minuteman.
That name may sound fierce - and so does Scalzi when he discusses his opposition to marriage between same-sex couples.
"We want to stop any redefinition of marriage that happens without a public vote," he said.
Scalzi said he does not know what the Minutemen's fight will entail. For now, he expects to write letters to officials, make phone calls reaching out for support and volunteer whatever time he can.
As the state Legislature may debate the legalization of marriage for gays and lesbians during the lame duck session, Scalzi's hometown of Vineland has become an unexpected base of strong opposition.
Scalzi belongs to Chestnut Assembly of God, a local Pentecostal congregation that has taken the statewide issue to heart - and to City Hall.
Twenty months ago, the church's pastor, the Rev. Ralph Snook, led a movement to ask Vineland's city government to pass a resolution defining marriage as being between one man and one woman.
Although the resolution has no legal weight, City Council passed the resolution with only one dissenting vote - making Vineland one of just two municipalities in the state to have taken a local stance against the redefinition of marriage.
That symbolic move caused Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, which advocates for legalized same-sex marriage, to say he decided to give Vineland "very special attention."
A year and a half later, that attention has raised the volume of debate on both sides, and also made churches the front lines in the debate.
Both sides anticipate a blitz of fall activity, discussing whether gay couples should receive the rights available to married couples - including hospital visitation and other rights not given to partners in legal civil unions. And today, the Marriage Minutemen, despite being a small group statewide, have more than
10 percent of their members living and congregating in and around Vineland.
Scalzi says his devotion to marriage came out of his time at the church - where he first acknowledged his own failings as a husband.
"I realized that volunteering for Iraq without consulting my wife was not very considerate, or good for my marriage," he said. As he was counseled in part by Marilyn Snook, the wife of the church pastor, Scalzi said he came to regard marriage as "a precious tradition."
Meanwhile, the Snooks' church has become influential because of its cooperation with the New Jersey Family Policy Council, a pressure group based in Parsippany, Morris County, which has made the blocking of same-sex marriage - what it calls the "defense of marriage" - a priority.
The council created the Marriage Minutemen group but has watched the idea take off in Cumberland County, where pastors say large Hispanic and black populations boost church attendance.
"There's no doubt support in Vineland is strong," said Greg Quinlan, director of government affairs for New Jersey Family First, the NJFPC's legislative action arm. Two years ago, the council first hosted a meeting at the Snooks' church in Vineland, at which Marilyn Snook said they discussed trying to pass the city resolution.
"We knew of one other town to have done it, and that's why we did it," she said, referring to Elizabeth in Union County. "For a sort of moral support."
On Aug. 18, leaders of the Family Policy Council returned to the church to discuss what action to take if lawmakers tackle the issue. About 150 Minutemen and women attended the meeting, Quinlan said - a significant portion of the statewide membership of 1,400. A similar meeting in Bridgeton recently drew only about 30.
Snook, who believes that homosexuality is not innate and can be cured, also said she had no problem with discussing politics from a pew. "I don't believe that church and state should ever be separate in the way it's interpreted today," she said Sunday. "In fact, we're happy to bring this up, because we want to talk about that. This is a moral issue."
But this flurry of activity has only spurred on gay activists, who have extended their reach into the southern part of the state.
Leslie Green, who started in January as field manager for the southern office of Garden State Equality, has expanded its outreach operation to hear firsthand from locals of all political stripes. "Unfortunately, our region is very spread out," she said Sunday. But from the group's offices in Collingswood, Camden County, Green has been making incursions into the Snooks' backyard.
"We've been stopping by every large event we can, where we can talk to a lot of people and really hear from those who have questions," she said.
Vince Grimm, the executive director of GABLES in Cape May, says that increased level of visibility is overdue: Since lesbian and gay community groups closed in Vineland and rural parts of Cumberland County, his group has a number of members from Vineland.
Through volunteering and cultural events in Cape May, "We give back to this community," he said, noting that Vineland has had no similar group building those bridges.
This year, Green and other volunteers have stopped at the Cumberland and Salem county fairs. There, she said, what surprises her is how many people she meets who have no strong opinion.
"I found it hilarious and surprising at first," she said of talking with those undecided on the issue. "But I think that shows the movable middle is a lot bigger than you might anticipate."
Green claims that is true even among the local religious community: While Chestnut Assembly of God has contacted at least six other local pastors for support, Goldstein and Green said they count members of two dozen religious denominations among their 38,000 members, and they have reached out to Lutheran congregations in the Vineland area.
"A lot of religious people are far more liberal than others in the population," Goldstein said.
Nevertheless, Quinlan thinks the Family Policy Council has built a network of congregations at Chestnut Assembly of God and others across the state, and said they collectively work as the council's base.
"You don't have to be a Christian to be a Marriage Minuteman," he said Friday. But he acknowledged that the packets of information distributed make reference to Christian values twice on the first page.
"They're written for churches," he said. "That's mainly where we go."
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