Seattle Priests Refuse to Circulate Marriage Referendum Petitions

by Shaun Knittel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday April 18, 2012

As many as seven Roman Catholic priests are reportedly refusing to circulate petitions in their parishes in support of a likely ballot measure that would overturn Washington's newly enacted marriage equality law.

The Rev. Michael Ryan of St. James Cathedral on Seattle's First Hill, the most prominent of these priests, sent an email to parishioners last week explaining his position against Referendum 74.

"Archbishop [J. Peter] Sartain has written a letter in which he has expressed his support for Referendum 74 and for the collecting of signatures in parishes," he wrote. "Media reports regarding this are somewhat misleading. While the archbishop has given his support to the effort, he has wisely left it up to each pastor to decide whether to allow the collection of signatures in his own parish."

Ryan further explained his position.

"After discussing the matter with the members of the cathedral's pastoral ministry team, I have decided that we will not participate in the collecting of signatures in our parish," he said. "Doing so would, I believe, prove hurtful and seriously divisive in our community."

The Archdiocese of Seattle confirmed that Ryan sent the email, but stressed that his decision was not, as it might appear, a challenge to instructions from Sartain to circulate the petitions.

"Archbishop Sartain has left the decision regarding collection of signatures for Referendum 74 to the discretion of each pastor," archdiocese spokesperson Greg Magnoni told EDGE.

Other church sources who spoke on background explained that Sartain had sent private instructions to parish priests, allowing them to opt out of the Referendum 74 petition drive. His public statement on the issue, however, seemed to be a wholehearted endorsement of the petitions.

At St. Joseph Parish on Capitol Hill, the Rev. John Whitney posted a notice on the congregation's website.

"You may have heard about a petition drive concerning Referendum 74, which will be gathering signatures at a number of parishes in Seattle," it read. "Please be aware that [Father] Whitney has decided that no petitioning will be permitted anywhere on the campus of St. Joseph. Please contact [Father] Whitney with any concerns."

Dignity/Seattle board member Leo Egashira described the news as "a surprise."

The local chapter of the organization that advocates on behalf of LGBT Catholics had held a monthly Mass at St. Joseph's until the archdiocese forced them out. Its members now meet at Ravenna United Methodist Church in Ravenna-Bryant.

"For once the pastors are heeding the needs of their own parishioners," said Egashira. "For once they're following the lead of the people. I am in awe of the courage and guts of [Father] Ryan. St. James is the archbishop's own church. That's pretty major."

Catholics for Marriage Equality Washington State urged the faithful to contact their priests and ask them to not circulate the Referendum 74 petition.

"We uphold the state of Washington's right to grant equality to all committed couples living in our state with the opportunity for a civil marriage in the eyes of the law," said the group in a statement. "If you agree, we ask that you contact your pastor and parish leadership and ask them to refuse to circulate the petition as well."

"I have a feeling that would have an impact on priests," added Egashira. "I know some priests-especially priests who have presided at Dignity masses-I think it would have an impact if people spoke up. The majority of Catholics support marriage equality."

Governor Chris Gregoire signed her state's marriage equality bill into law in February.

The statute is scheduled to take effect on June 6, but referendum proponents have until that day to collect the necessary 120,577 signatures to get the measure on the November ballot.

Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News.