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Wednesday, April 18, 2012 - Page updated at 11:00 a.m. Information in this article, originally published April 13, 2012, was corrected April 17, 2012. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that in 2009, the Roman Catholic Diocese in Portland, Maine, did not make petitions available in its parishes for a ballot measure to repeal that state's same-sex marriage legislation. In fact, the diocese did allow the petitions to be circulated in parishes.
Several priests shut church door to petitions to block gay marriage
By Lornet Turnbull
Seattle Times staff reporter
Priests at a number of Roman Catholic parishes in the area have said no to the gathering of signatures for Referendum 74 at their churches — putting them at odds with their archbishop on a statewide ballot measure seeking repeal of Washington's same-sex marriage law.
The majority of parishes in Western Washington are expected to make the petitions available — some as soon as this Sunday, following Mass, according to a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Seattle.
But pastors of at least three prominent Catholic churches in Seattle — St. Mary's Church, St. Joseph Parish and St. James Cathedral — have notified members that the petitions will not be made available there.
In an item posted on St. James' website, the Very Rev. Michael G. Ryan said he decided not to permit the petitions after a discussion with the pastoral team. He said he believed allowing the petitions would "prove hurtful and seriously divisive in our community. In saying this, I do realize that there are some who will be disappointed with this decision."
The decisions by pastors come two weeks after the Most Rev. J. Peter Sartain, archbishop of Seattle, sent a lengthy letter to parishioners outlining his support for Ref. 74 and explaining why he believes defending traditional marriage is important.
"We believe that the redefinition of marriage is such a far-reaching and radical decision that it should not be left simply to a vote of legislators and the signature of the governor," his letter said.
Sartain's position is in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church, which has traditionally opposed same-sex marriage, despite support from 56 percent of lay Catholics for such unions. In states from Maine to California, the church has advocated — to some degree or another — against such unions.
Yet in supporting the gathering of signatures in local parishes, Sartain went further than other bishops, some of whom more recently have backed off their opposition to same-sex marriage, or even come out in support of arrangements such as civil unions. Still, his recommendation was not a dictum, and he left it to the discretion of pastors to decide for themselves and their parishioners how best to handle the matter.
Churches risk losing their tax-exempt status if they become involved in political campaigning, but the restriction doesn't apply to initiative and referendum campaigns, which are considered legislation. Churches are permitted to lobby on pending laws.
June 6 deadline
The Ref. 74 campaign of those who oppose same-sex marriage, which includes the National Organization for Marriage, hopes voters will reject the state's new same-sex marriage law. To get the measure on the November ballot, the campaign must gather at least 120,577 valid signatures by June 6.
At Assumption Catholic Church in North Seattle, the Rev. Oliver Duggan called the issue the "elephant still in the room." He said he planned to talk about it on Sunday but declined to reveal what he intends to say.
At St. Monica Catholic Church on Mercer Island, members of the Knights of Columbus will have petitions available following Sunday Mass, an administrator there said.
Calls to the archdiocese have been running about even between those opposed to the archbishop's stance on the issue and those who favor it, archdiocese spokesman Greg Magnoni said.
"Our bishops determined that marriage is such a significant issue for the common good, that it was imperative the measure be placed on the ballot so voters can decide," Magnoni said.
Before legislators in February passed the state's same-sex marriage legislation, Sartain testified against it in Olympia. But some church members are hard-pressed to recall an instance where — on the issue of gay rights, at least — the church has gone so far as to allow signature gathering inside parishes anywhere.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for gays within the Catholic Church, called Sartain's position "a very aggressive step — and in the wrong direction."
In other states, "there appears to be a trend of the church supporting civil unions or domestic partnerships, arrangements short of full marriage," he said.
For example, he noted, the Archbishop of Westminster in England in December came out in support of civil unions. And in New Hampshire this year, the Catholic Church endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples as a compromise to a full repeal of that state's same-sex marriage law, which has been in place since 2009.
In 2009, the Diocese in Portland, Maine, opposed marriage equality on a referendum and made petitions available in its parishes.
This year, same-sex marriage supporters in Maine are trying again to legalize gay marriage. Last month, church leaders there announced they would not actively campaign against the measure, but would instead educate members on the issues.
"Education is the proper role for the church; collecting signatures is not education," DeBernardo said.
In Maine, he said, some parishes have reported a loss in membership as a result of the church's position in 2009.
"That's important for Archbishop Sartain and others to consider," DeBernardo said. "This could have a devastating affect, regardless of the outcome."
Magnoni, the Seattle Archdiocese spokesman, said that at least here in Washington state, there have not been opportunities for the church to stake a claim on a moral issue this important to its teachings. The archdiocese, for example, was not involved in the Ref. 71 campaign, which attempted to repeal the state's domestic-partnership law in 2009.
"The church, in the first instance, is not a political institution," Magnoni said. "But when there's a political issue with a moral dimension, the church has the responsibility to step up and help people understand Catholic teaching around the issues."
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or email@example.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.
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