Gay Marriage Pits Laymen Against Religious Hierarchy

At a Seattle synagogue, volunteers are running a phone bank urging voters to uphold Washington’s same-sex marriage law. In Maryland, Catholics are poised to preach from the pulpit opposing a similar initiative.

Voters in those states as well as Maine are less than two weeks from deciding whether to hand ballot-box victory to same-sex marriage proponents for the first time after more than a decade of defeat. Campaigns on both sides are targeting religious communities, where leaders holding on to centuries of opposition to homosexuality are often pitted against their congregants’ evolving attitudes toward gay nuptials.

“There has been some movement in recent years toward greater acceptance of same-sex marriage,” said David Masci, a researcher with the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington. “But the largest religious groups and the biggest churches remain opposed.”

Opposition to same-sex marriage from religious groups has helped block it at the polls. In 2008, Mormon and Catholic forces mobilized voters in California to halt court-sanctioned gay unions. Since then, six states have granted same-sex couples the right to wed, Barack Obama became the first sitting president to endorse the practice and some denominations have warmed to the idea.

Stigma Fading

In May, a committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, which sets rules for the Conservative Judaism, approved rituals for same-sex marriages. The Episcopal Church in July approved a liturgy for homosexual unions. In Presbyterian Christian churches, factions have pressed to recognize the vows, though the push was defeated by official assemblies this year.

And in a sign of a fading stigma, a group of Mormons marched at a gay-pride parade this year in Salt Lake City.

“The biggest breakthrough that I now hear from people who support the freedom to marry for same-sex couples is that it’s because of their faith, not in spite of it,” said Marvin Ellison, a professor of Christian ethics at the Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine and president of the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination.

Freedom to Marry, a national gay-rights group, is working with followers to counter the notion that any faith is united in its opposition, said Evan Wolfson, the group’s president.

Maryland Catholics

Still, homosexual marriage remains anathema among evangelical Christians and within the Catholic Church, the second-biggest denomination in the U.S. and a leader in efforts this year to defeat gay vows at the polls.

In Maryland, where about one-fifth of the residents are Catholic, the church has been a vocal opponent of the same-sex marriage law signed by Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley, a practicing Catholic.

The Maryland Catholic Conference, the church’s public-policy arm, is distributing announcements to be read from the pulpit at the end of Mass during the next two Sundays, reminding parishioners of the church’s opposition to Question 6. Churches can have their tax-exempt status revoked for endorsing candidates but are free to speak out on public-policy issues.

“The definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman, open to the birth of children, is a matter of established Catholic doctrine,” Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine, said in a statement. “Any Catholic who supports a redefinition of marriage -- or so-called ’same-sex marriage’ -- is unfaithful to Catholic doctrine.”

Religious Protection

To temper opposition, all three states’ laws protect religious groups from being forced to recognize marriages deemed contrary to their beliefs or to lease their premises for gay weddings.

Not all opponents are convinced. One television ad in Washington features a Vermont innkeeper who says he was sued for refusing to support a lesbian wedding because it clashed with his Christian beliefs. In Maine, one spot warns that in places where gay marriage has become legal, those who disagree “have been fired, sued, fined and punished.”

Mainers United for Marriage, a coalition of organizations in favor of same-sex marriage, is telling voters that won’t happen. The law expands protections for religious institutions that don’t want to partake in gay marriages, said David Farmer, a spokesman. The group has been working to build support since voters rejected a 2009 state law legalizing gay marriage.

Turnout Key

Pro-gay-marriage televisions ads in Maine and Washington feature pastors, bishops and friars. Ads from Marylanders for Marriage Equality seek to appeal to black and religious voters by featuring black ministers. And in Minnesota, where voters will weigh whether to amend their constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman, a Catholic couple stars.

Opponents have also sought to rally religious institutions to their side, hosting forums at churches around the state.

Religious turnout could help offset the financial advantage held by gay marriage supporters. In Washington, the main foes of Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire’s law have raised $2.1 million, $250,000 of it from the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal organization, according to state filings.

That’s about one-fifth of the $10.9 million raised by the main group supporting it, which drew upon wealthy backers including Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos and Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates.

Growing Support

Marylanders for Marriage Equality raised $3.3 million through early October, compared with $839,000 raised by the Maryland Marriage Alliance, the principal opponents.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, pledged $750,000 to support gay-marriage initiatives in the four states.

Support among churchgoers has also been growing, mirroring the changing mores in the broader society, particularly among the young. Most Americans unaffiliated with any religion have long favored same-sex marriage, according to the Pew Research Center’s polling.

In 2011, a majority of Catholics and white mainline Protestants did so for the first time, a shift confirmed in subsequent polling. Opponents still predominate among black Protestants and white evangelicals, according to Pew.

Six States

A poll published this month by the Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of those who attend religious service at least once a week oppose same-sex marriage. Less-frequent churchgoers favor it 2-to-1.

To date, same-sex marriage has become legal only as a result of legislation and court rulings, in Iowa, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia. Voters have opposed same-sex marriage in every state where it has appeared on the ballot.

In Seattle, the Temple De Hirsch Sinai has been running a phone bank five days a week, where some 40 volunteers seek to persuade voters to back the law. The congregation, part of the Reform branch of Judaism, which has long championed gay rights, plans to do so through Election Day.

“We’ve taken a very vehement, vocal and visual role in supporting the gay community,” said Rabbi Daniel Weiner. “It is the civil-rights issue of our time.”

Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, said religious opposition will eventually be overtaken by societal and demographic shifts.

“We’re in the middle of a major cultural change,” he said. “Young people are very strongly in favor of gay marriage, and as the older people die off and young people replace them as voters, there’s a tsunami of support building up among young people that this is going to be a done deal within 10 years.”

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