It's expected to get hot as NOM's Summer for Marriage Tour 2010 rolls into Iowa next week, but the anti-gay marriage group warmed up first with three stops in Minnesota.

The National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the nation's most vociferous opponent of gay marriage, has mounted a 23-city bus tour to promote marriage as between “one man, one woman.” The tour is expected to end with a Washington D.C. rally on August 15.

At stops in St. Paul on Wednesday, St. Cloud on Thursday and Rochester on Friday, NOM speakers stepped up their claims that preserving marriage as a heterosexual union is a civil right.

“We've taken great pains to make clear what we are all about,” NOM President Brian Brown said in St. Paul. “We view ourselves as a new civil rights movement. … Committed to something that in the 1960s was key: the right to vote.”

“If we do not stand up for marriage we will be treated under the law as bigots,” Brown told a sparse crowd that had gathered in the parking lot of the New Life Worship Center on Friday.

While stops in St. Cloud and Rochester drew little interest, Wednesday's St. Paul stop was easily the tour's biggest success to date. One head count put NOM supporters at 163. About 200 counter demonstrators led by the gay rights group OutFront Minnesota kept their distance, opting to rally inside the Statehouse rotunda.

NOM announced in May it would battle against gay marriage in the state with a $200,000 campaign.

“Many Minnesotans are unaware that special interest groups are working to convince activist judges and DFL [Democratic-Farmer-Labor] lawmakers to redefine marriage in the state,” Brown said in a statement.

In its first television ad, the group took aim at four leading candidates for governor who support gay marriage.

“Leading DFL and independent candidates for governor support homosexual marriage,” a male announcer says in the ad. “And most DFL lawmakers don't want you to have a say. When they ask for your support, ask them if they'll guarantee your right to vote on marriage.”

NOM officials have made plenty of noise about the civility of counter protesters, but after saying in St. Paul that his group “will stand up and repudiate hatred on both sides,” Brown reversed course two days later and backed the church's right to denounce gay men and lesbians.

When asked by Arisha Michelle Hatch, who is documenting the tour on behalf of gay rights groups the Courage Campaign and Freedom to Marry, if he agrees with religious speakers on the tour that have described gay people as “perverted,” diseased” and likely pedophiles, Brown backed their right to freely speak.

“What I believe is that pastors and religious leaders need to be able to speak up for traditional, Christian sexual morality,” Brown answered. “And they have the right to do that. They have the obligation to do that.”

In two Iowa stops starting on Sunday, the tour is expected to draw  large crowds of supporters and counter demonstrators.

Iowa became the first – and remains the only – Midwestern state to legalize gay marriage when the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of advocates last year. The issue has driven many of the state's top races, with many Republicans openly campaigning in favor of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a heterosexual union.

Several attempts to begin the amendment process have been blocked by Democratic leaders in the Legislature, angering social conservatives opposed to the institution.

Danny Carroll, a former Republican legislator and chairman of the Iowa Family Policy Center, the state's leading opponent of gay marriage, is expected to draw large crowds at NOM rallies in Des Moines on Sunday and Sioux City on Tuesday.

Carroll has previously called the court's ruling “contrary to God's law.”

Last week, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest gay rights advocate, said it believes the tour is designed to incite loud protests, not promote heterosexual marriage.

HRC claimed that the tour is being used to gather evidence of ill-behaved protesters in an effort to boost several ongoing lawsuits that claim opponents of gay marriage face threats of violence and intimidation, and their identities need to be shielded.

The theory is almost certain to be tested in Iowa, where the state's largest gay rights group, OneIowa, is rallying counter protesters with the battle cry “WE REFUSE TO BE SILENT!”