Catholic Church jumps Into N.J. Marriage Fray

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday November 30, 2009

The heavy involvement of the Catholic Church in Maine's marriage equality struggle brought criticism and questions about the Catholic clergy crossing the line between church and state. The church there created a PAC to funnel money--more than half a million dollars--to the anti-gay Stand for Marriage Maine; voters in Maine narrowly approved a measure that rescinded marriage rights for gay and lesbian families there, in a ballot-box rights drama that echoed the repeal a year ago of marriage rights for gay and lesbian Californians.

Calls for the church to lose its tax-exempt status for its role in the vote have been voiced, but are not expected to lead to action. Meantime, GLBT equality advocates note that gay and lesbian people of faith experienced alienation at their own churches when fund-raising efforts were carried out to benefit the anti-marriage campaign. Dignity USA's executive director, Marianne Duddy-Burke, told EDGE, "Obviously, it is distressing, disturbing and very painful to see the leadership of our church using funds that should be used for ministry into institutionalizing state-sponsored discrimination."

Earlier this month, the archdiocese of Washington, D.C. issued a threat to pull its support for services to the city's poor and homeless if a measure approving marriage equality in the District were to pass, creating a separate buzz of bad press. However, undeterred by the controversy spurred by its actions in Maine and Washington, D.C., the church has instructed New Jersey priests to read an anti-equality letter aloud to their parishes, or else to distribute copies of the letter to their congregants.

The letter states that "marriage faces challenges from a society more focused on individual satisfaction than on the Gospel," and includes a request that parishioners pray that state lawmakers will not extend marriage equality to New Jersey's gay and lesbian families, a Nov. 28 Newark Star-Ledger article reported, noting that the state's Catholic priests received the order from New Jersey bishops.

With the defeat of Gov. John Corzine, who is pro-equality, and the election of Chris Christie, who has said that he will veto any marriage equality bill that reaches his desk, pro-family parity lawmakers have only a swiftly closing window to pass a bill and get it to Corzine for signing. But as the state's lawmakers have gathered for a lame duck session that will constitute the last chance for such a bill to go to Corzine's office, some lawmakers have expressed reluctance to take on the measure.

A post-election Quinnipiac poll also shows that marriage equality support among New Jersey voters has fallen since the election results, with a narrow majority favoring equal family rights evaporating and a narrow majority opposing marriage equality emerging.

The anti-marriage letter, however, paints marriage equality as an imminent reality, warning that, "One of the most serious challenges [to the status quo] is the current effort to pass Bills in the New Jersey legislature that would change the very definition of marriage as a union of one man and one woman in order to allow same-sex 'marriage.' We must not stand silent in the face of this serious challenge."

The Star-Ledger article noted that the letter asked Catholics to lend "support" to members of their family who might "choose to remain single," which Newark Archdiocese spokesperson James Goodness said could be either straight or gay people. The church teaches that although sexual orientation is innate and is not a "choice," God's plan for gays and lesbians is that they should forsake intimate relationships and lead solitary lives.

Other New Jersey clergy have taken a different stance on marriage equality. A letter signed by 18 religious leaders from around New Jersey was sent to state lawmakers in October, urging legislative support for the rights of gay and lesbian families to participate in the protections and obligations of civil marriage.

Church bishops nationally have attacked marriage equality as "harmful" to society as a whole, claiming that the "purpose" of marriage is procreation and saying that the "common good" would be endangered if same-sex relationships were given full-fledged recognition.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.