EAGERLY WAITING Laura Harper, right, of the Maine Women's Lobby, hopes to marry her partner if Maine passes a gay-marriage law. CREDIT RISE PHOTOGRAPHY
From Massachusetts, which started granting same-sex marriage licenses in 2004, both sides should learn lessons about the potential sway of the Catholic Church. It's safe to say that Catholic influence — over both legislators and voters — is the most daunting foe facing the Freedom to Marry Coalition, which comprises EqualityMaine, the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the Maine Women's Lobby, Gay and Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), and more than 20 other organizations. Late last year, after the state's Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry — a pro-marriage group of Maine clergy that is a member of the broader Freedom to Marry Coalition — held a press conference affirming its support for same-sex marriage, Portland's Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Malone issued a letter outlining his church's opposition.
"To claim that marriage is a civil right open to all forms of relationships is a misnomer," the letter read in part. "Marriage is an institution that predates civilization, ordained by God, and exclusive to one man and one woman who are given the responsibility to procreate the human race, and to nurture, educate, and pass on shared values and mores to their offspring. To redefine marriage to include same-sex couples is to strip marriage of an essential component, namely the ability and obligation to procreate. To strip marriage of this essential component is to render marriage meaningless and open it up to endless revision and redefinition."
Despite the fact that the letter was read at masses across the state that Sunday (and we can expect more proselytizing from the pulpit), Mutty, the Catholic lobbyist, says: "The way we approach this is not from a religious point of view. We are saying that from a secular point of view marriage between one man and one woman is the natural order of things. We're not trying to legislate Catholic dogma in the public square."
Of course, when a Roman Catholic bishop calls a Catholic legislator expressing the church's disapproval of gay marriage, it's difficult to see the distinction. (Mutty says Malone hasn't yet done this, but "it is an option that remains on the table," according to Mutty — and it's a strategy that's certainly been used in other states.)
To help counter the religious argument, the bill was specially crafted to "affirm religious freedom." If enacted, it "does not authorize any court or other state or local governmental body ... to compel, prevent or interfere in any way with any religious institution's religious doctrine, policy, teaching or solemnization of marriage within that particular religious faith's tradition."
To underscore the secular nature of their goal, gay-marriage supporters often repeat or stress that they're talking not just about marriage, but about civil marriage.
For example: "One of the things that's going to be really important as this moves forward is the separation between civil and religious freedoms," Bellows says, offering a preview of how many conversations will be framed. "That said, every legislator, just as they do on a whole range of issues, is going to have to balance their own religious beliefs with their understanding of civil marriage."