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New York gay marriage bill: Could Catholics play a decisive role?

New York gay marriage bill delays continue as Republican senators decide whether to hold a vote. One of the variables they are likely considering: the considerable influence Catholics and the Catholic Church have in state politics.

By Patrick WallContributor / June 24, 2011

Father Anthony Joseph of the United Anglican Church in Gloversville, N.Y., an opponent of the same-sex marriage bill, prays in the hallway outside the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., Friday. The voices of religious groups, especially Catholics, could play a key role in determining whether the bill passes.

Hans Pennink/AP

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New York

Groups on both sides of the drawn-out debate over the New York gay marriage bill have used moral and religious language to appeal to lawmakers. But one religious group – the Roman Catholic Church – exerts an especially strong pull on the state legislature’s moral compass.

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Nearly 40 percent of New York voters are Catholic, according to public opinion surveys and voter exit polls, and “the church hierarchy has always been a presence at the state Capitol,” says Jeffrey Stonecash, a political scientist at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University in New York.

But as the Senate’s Republican majority on Friday continues its closed-door debates over whether to bring the same-sex marriage bill to the floor, one of the variables it must consider is whether to heed the advice of the Catholic Church or of Catholic voters.

Opinion polls point to a split between the Catholic hierarchy and lay Catholics over the issues of homosexuality and gay marriage, complicating matters for conservative lawmakers attempting to get a bead on the attitudes of an important constituency.

“They’re trying to decide: Does the Catholic Church really have that much sway over their members anymore?” says Mr. Stonecash.

More to the point, he adds, lawmakers wonder: “Can they really have an impact on my election?”

Along those lines, one major cause of the bill's holdup has been concern about language in the bill that would exempt religious groups from performing or hosting gay marriages. Several GOP senators want to expand the exemptions to protect religious-affiliated groups, such as the social service organization, Catholic Charities.

The Catholic Church itself has been vocal in its opposition to the bill.

“We’ve been urging Catholics across the state to call and e-mail [their representatives] to express their opinion that the state should not be redefining marriage,” says Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference.

Mr. Poust says nearly 65,000 New York Catholics receive the group’s e-mail newsletter, which lists the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of key legislators. Conference lobbyists have also met with Senators – both Democrats and Republicans – repeatedly in recent weeks to argue against the bill.

Moreover, the state’s Catholic leader, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, has used his pulpit – both the actual pulpit and his personal blog – to loudly protest the “perilous presumption of the state to reinvent” traditional marriage, which he says is “hardwired into our human reason.” He emphasized that the church is anti-gay marriage, but pro-gay individual rights.

Difference of opinion

But his exhortations do not necessarily reflect those of American Catholics in general or New York Catholics in particular, polls suggest.

“Really across the board on questions about gay and lesbian rights, Catholics tend to be more supportive than the general population,” says Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.

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