Eight years ago, when an initiative to ban gay marriage was on the California ballot for the first time, Pastor Jim Garlow of the 2,500-member Skyline Church in San Diego County barely mentioned it from his pulpit.
But same-sex marriage wasn't legal then. This time around, he said, will be different, and he hopes other ministers will agree.
On Wednesday, Garlow took a first step toward organizing clergy in the state, convening a conference call in which more than 1,000 ministers, most from evangelical congregations, discussed tactics for passing a fall ballot initiative that would amend California's Constitution to ban gay marriage.
The strategy session, which included input from lawyers and political consultants, was the opening of what conservative religious leaders hope will become a massive Christian outpouring of support for the proposed amendment.
The effort will include a 40-day fasting period leading up to election day, along with 100 days of prayer. On the weekend before the election, Garlow told the ministers, the goal would be to fill Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego and other amphitheaters with people praying for a ban on gay marriage.
Opponents of the amendment were quick to downplay the significance of Wednesday's call to arms.
"There are certainly thousands of people of faith who are supportive of the freedom to marry," said Kerry Chaplin, the organizing director for California Faith for Equality, a coalition of more than 2,000 faith leaders and congregations supporting same-sex marriage.
Although some religious leaders, particularly Catholics and Mormons, were involved in passing Proposition 22, the 2000 initiative that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman and that was overturned by the state Supreme Court in May, strategists predicted a much greater involvement by evangelical churches in this election.
"We are working with all the churches who are willing to work with us," said Frank Schubert, the campaign manager for the initiative. "It's woven together to form what we hope will be the largest grass-roots campaign in California history."
Organizers said the ministers on the call lead congregations totaling about 1 million people.
The dueling messages of the state's clergy reflect passionate divisions in many faiths about the question. But in the political arena, there is no question that opponents of same-sex marriage will rely heavily on religious leaders to carry their message about marriage and to mobilize their congregants to vote.
Although pastors cannot urge parishioners from the pulpit to back specific candidates for office, the law does allow advocacy for legislation or initiatives. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and six Roman Catholic bishops in Southern California have already issued a statement opposing same-sex marriage.
Political analyst Tony Quinn said the involvement of the pastors could be significant, especially because many conservatives are relatively disengaged by the election this year. "This . . . could bring people to the polls that would not otherwise vote. The churches can do that," he said.
Several ministers said they felt inspired by the coming political campaign.
"Maybe we can have an impact that will actually affect our state, and California affects the whole country," said Pastor Scott Pearson of the 1st Baptist Church in Taft. He set up a speaker phone in a Sunday school classroom and invited 10 other ministers to listen in.
At times, Pearson said, he feels like his "circle of influence is pretty small." After all, he said, Taft is "just one little town in the Central Valley." But the conference call made him see that he could be part of a broad movement.
That is what Garlow and other conference call organizers had hoped would happen. Garlow, who provides radio commentary to 629 stations each day, said he began the call by saying that religious leaders in California need to do more to move the larger culture and to express "repentance" that California has reached a place where "our culture got in such a mess" that gay weddings are happening.
The goal, he said, "is to create a climate, a culture of fasting and praying for our state."