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The Catholic war against gay marriage
The Catholic Church has cultivated a campaign of harassment against Catholic legislators who support marriage rights for same-sex couples. Will it work?

THE MOST POWERFUL local opponent fighting against the civil-marriage rights of same-sex couples is the Catholic Church. For months, the state’s four bishops — led by Boston archbishop Seán O’Malley — have mounted an unprecedented campaign to sway the votes of Catholic politicians on Beacon Hill. It began in earnest in June 2003, with the release of the bishops’ first statement denouncing same-sex marriage. On November 18, 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) determined that the ban on civil marriage for same-sex couples was unconstitutional, Archbishop O’Malley urged state legislators to thwart the SJC ruling. Within a week, he and his fellow bishops issued a joint statement opposing the historic ruling, which was either read from the pulpit or distributed at mass across the state — or both. On January 16, the bishops mailed a four-page, glossy brochure to one million Bay State Catholics urging them to work for passage of a constitutional amendment that would bar lesbian and gay couples from marrying. O’Malley has even aligned himself with radical evangelical Christians in the battle against gay marriage. On February 8, the Sunday before the first day of the constitutional convention (ConCon), the archbishop addressed an anti-gay-marriage rally on the Boston Common organized by Your Catholic Voice and featuring representatives from national right-wing groups like Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council. He asked the 3000-strong audience to "stand together" to "affirm marriage and family" and then read from a February 6 statement opposing gay marriage that had been signed by 3000 religious leaders statewide.

But an even more intensive lobbying effort has taken place behind the scenes. Interviews with 10 state representatives and senators, only one of whom agreed to let his name be used, suggest that the Church has — intentionally or not — fostered a campaign of harassment against legislators who support civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples. Much of the lobbying from Catholic priests and parishioners opposed to full equality for gay and lesbian couples has been routine: petitions and postcards delivered to the State House coupled with phone calls and e-mails from parishioners to their legislators. It’s also true that the Church’s position has a powerful friend in House Speaker Tom Finneran, who is a devout Catholic and strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. On March 11, for example, a legal memorandum written by Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon and five other law professors and addressed to the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), the Church’s lobbying arm, was placed on every legislative seat in the House chamber where the ConCon debate occurred. The memo argued against a "compromise" amendment that would ban gay marriage while establishing civil unions because it would raise "serious religious liberty issues — particularly with respect to the Church and other traditional religious organizations." Two sources tell the Phoenix that Finneran must approve any materials that make it onto the House floor; Finneran spokesman Charlie Rasmussen did not return a Phoenix phone call seeking comment. Regardless, the appearance of the Church document on the House floor puzzled some legislators. As one state representative explains, "I thought that we were dealing with separation of church and state."

But much of this lobbying — which has taken place in churches and behind closed doors, far away from the public eye — has been a lot more aggressive. Catholic representatives and senators — in particular, those who have voted with the pro-gay forces — have been, in the words of one state senator, "batted from pillar to post" by priests, deacons, and monsignors. Some have been openly denounced from the altars of churches in their districts. Many have fielded viciously homophobic correspondence from Catholic constituents, some of whom have suggested that legislators who favor same-sex marriage do not have the right to attend church. Others have been invited to speak at Catholic functions, only to be disinvited on the basis of their pro-gay-marriage votes. The months of badgering have left many Catholic lawmakers feeling abused. As one legislator, without a hint of sarcasm, puts it, "I would describe the Church’s tactics as thug-like, diabolical, and totally void of openness."

TAKE THE CASE of one Catholic legislator who has amassed a solid pro-life record. One day before the March 11 ConCon, the legislator was paid a visit by Massachusetts Citizens for Life, a pro-life advocacy group closely tied to the Boston archdiocese. The legislator assumed the pro-life advocates wanted to discuss pending measures on stem-cell research. Instead, they began the meeting by denouncing same-sex marriage. "I was stunned," the legislator recalls. "I don’t see a nexus between the pro-life movement and this issue."

But the advocates did. They argued that lesbian couples would be likely to utilize in vitro fertilization to become pregnant — a procedure that the group considers a "serious violation of life." And so they asked the legislator to support a constitutional amendment barring same-sex couples from civil marriage. The request struck the legislator as a cheap trick: "They created a rationale to get involved in this discussion. They manufactured a reason to bring more manpower on behalf of the archdiocese and to put more pressure on pro-life legislators."

The tactic shows how creative the Church has become in its lobbying. Far more typical, though, is the torrent of nasty mail endured by Catholic legislators over the past four months. Take David Torrisi, a North Andover representative who supports same-sex marriage and who has consistently voted with pro-gay forces. He attends St. Michael’s Church, in North Andover, which happens to be the second-largest Catholic parish in Massachusetts. Torrisi has been inundated with phone calls, e-mails, and letters from people who identify themselves as parishioners at St. Michael’s or one of the other five parishes in his district. While Torrisi is careful to note that many of the contacts he’s received have been respectful, "a good 10 percent" have lashed out at him in what he calls "really disconcerting" ways. They have, for instance, condemned him to "burn in hell." Or declared him "a sinner" who must face God’s wrath for supporting "the homosexual lifestyle." One person even called his parents and, Torrisi says, "told them what a terrible job they did raising me."

He’s also been threatened by two clergymen in his district who’ve said they will find someone to run against him if he doesn’t change his vote. "I’ve had a couple priests say to me, ‘We’ll have to find someone else who can respect God’s will,’" the three-term representative says. (Though Torrisi stresses that neither priest comes from his parish, he declines to name those who have tried to intimidate him.) But the viciousness has left him wondering how he and these angry parishioners could possibly come from the same church. "I grew up with the principle ‘Love thy neighbor,’" he explains. "But some calls that I’ve received don’t come across as being too Christian."

Another state legislator from a district north of Boston has become the subject of repeated sermons delivered from the pulpit. On the Sunday before the February 11 ConCon, an area priest invoked the legislator’s name and implied that this "good Catholic" would toe the line by voting in accordance with the Church’s teachings on same-sex marriage. But by the following Sunday, after the legislator had cast a vote against the Church’s position, the priest had changed his tune. This time, according to the legislator, the priest "challenged my upbringing. He said I would have voted a different way if I’d been raised right by my parents." As the ConCon continued, the same priest ratcheted up the rhetoric. Once he even compared the legislator to one of the biblical figures who betrayed Jesus Christ. "People called me afterward and said, ‘He’s just out of line.’ They thought that priest had gone too far."

Fortunately, this legislator didn’t hear the sermons firsthand; they were described to the politician afterward by others who had. But the same cannot be said for a state representative from yet another district north of Boston. A devout Catholic, the rep holds the position of parish cantor. When mass ended on February 8, the Sunday before the ConCon, the rep got ready to sing a closing hymn. Until, that is, the priest let a parishioner up on the altar to address the congregation about same-sex marriage. Urging fellow Catholics to contact the rep, the parishioner proceeded to rail against the rep’s and other area legislators’ recently publicized refusal to limit civil marriage to heterosexual couples. "He was in a diatribe about [area] legislators, saying they would vote against the DOMA," the rep recalls. "I was shaking, just waiting for someone to say, ‘There’s one of them.’"

Later, the parishioner who’d spoken from the altar and his wife approached the rep privately. But when the rep offered counterpoints to the couple’s view — telling them that passing an amendment would mean "adding discriminatory language into the constitution for the first time in this state" — they merely repeated themselves. Says the rep, "The only answer I kept getting back from them was ‘Archbishop Seán told us we need the right to vote.’ They said that four times."

O’Malley has even taken to lobbying legislators personally. Last month, five days before the February 11 ConCon, he called a legislator who is an active Catholic representing a heavily Catholic district outside Boston. At the time, the legislator had not publicly discussed the issue and appeared to be a swing vote to advocates on both sides. The archbishop, according to the legislator, "said he was calling legislators who were undecided and tried to persuade me to vote with the Church." The conversation lasted for approximately 30 minutes. Says the legislator, "We had a long talk and discussed both sides of the issue. But in the end, I voted the way I felt was right." In other words, the legislator — who has sought "spiritual counsel" over this issue from a trusted priest — ended up backing the pro-gay forces. Still, as the legislator says, "You cannot get any stronger in your lobbying than the archbishop calling [Catholic] politicians."

Indeed. Catholic legislators — especially those who disagree with the church’s stance on same-sex marriage — insist that they’ve never seen their church push so fiercely or so thoroughly on any previous public-policy debate. Not on social services for the poor. Not on the death penalty. Not even on abortion. One veteran state senator offers this observation: "I’ve never been so pressured by the Church before. It has leaned on me with an intensity and a consistency that I haven’t seen in any special-interest group."

The Reverend Christopher Coyne, O’Malley’s spokesperson, did not return a phone call from the Phoenix seeking comment. But those who lobby the legislature professionally on behalf of the Church distance themselves from these aggressive tactics. According to Dan Avila, the MCC’s associate director of policy and research, O’Malley has told Bay State legislators that they have an "obligation" not to receive communion if they stake out positions contrary to Church teachings. But, Avila says, "the archbishop has also said that he’s not going to make a public example of any legislator." So if Catholic reps and senators are facing threats because of their stance on same-sex marriage, he adds, "It’s not a directive from the archbishop."

Avila insists that, to date, professional Church lobbyists have been charitable toward legislators. "We are under obligation to be charitable," he says, although he recognizes that the debate’s pitched emotions can lead to "counterproductive" behavior. "To the extent that legislators have been left with the impression of thug-like behavior," he says, "that doesn’t help us."

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Issue Date: March 26 - April 1, 2004
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