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.

Hans Pennink/AP
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.

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.

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.

For example, a Pew Research Center poll in May found that 64 percent of US Catholics say homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared with 58 percent of the general population.

On the specific question of New York’s proposed gay marriage law, some polls have shown a majority of the state’s Catholics favor legalizing same-sex marriage – and at rates roughly equal to the broader population.

Fifty-two percent of New York Catholic voters support the gay-marriage law, compared with 56 percent of all state voters, according to a January Quinnipiac University poll. An April Siena College poll found that 59 percent of Catholic voters in New York supported legalizing gay marriage, compared with 58 percent of all state voters – though more recent Siena polls have shown the Catholic number slip to 46 percent.

Catholic support part of a trend

Catholic support of same-sex marriage has followed public acceptance of the cause, which has climbed in recent years, says Gregory Lewis, a Georgia State University professor of public management and policy who tracks public attitudes on gay marriage.

“Opinion moved slowly toward greater support up until 2005,” he says. “Since then we’ve seen the pace of support increase.”

Catholics are not alone in their growing embrace of the issue. “There’s been a general move toward acceptance in all religious groups,” says Mr. Lewis.

As more lesbians and gay men are open about their sexuality, Lewis says, more heterosexuals are likely to know someone who is gay. “One of the things that seems clear, is that knowing someone gay has a positive impact on support for gay rights,” says Lewis.

Many traditional religions, including Catholicism, prohibit homosexual relations and marriage. Still, many adherents find ways to distance themselves from those teachings, without abandoning their faith.

Mr. Jones says there is an unofficial traditional among American Catholics of differing with the church on controversial social issues. He says that many Catholics support the use of artificial birth control and the death penalty, both of which the Church officially opposes.

Most Catholics “have a pretty good sense that they can make up their own minds,” Jones says, “and still be in good standing with the Catholic Church.”

“There are certainly challenges in reconciling a faith that is so dear to us, with doctrine that is very punitive and derogatory at times towards us,” says Marianne Duddy-Burke, Executive Director of DignityUSA, a national organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics.

Senate math

Republicans hold a slight majority in the state Senate – occupying 32 of the chamber’s 62 seats. On Friday morning, four days after the official end of the legislative session, they had yet to announce a decision on whether to bring the gay marriage vote to the floor, where it needs 32 votes to pass and has the support of at least two Republicans. With one Democrat – a Pentecostal minister – against the bill, that leaves the bill one vote shy of what it needs to pass.

As the Republican caucus continues its deliberations, members are likely to weigh the relative influence of hardcore conservative voters – including some Catholics – against more moderate Republicans, Stonecash says. And, of course, they must consider their own moral beliefs about marriage and homosexuality.

“This is one of those issues that is very complex,” says Stonecash. “It’s probably a terribly complicated discussion.”

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