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Churches key to Mich. gay marriage fight

In Michigan, one of 11 states where constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage will appear on the November ballot, much of both the support and opposition for these initiatives is church-based.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Inside the National Shrine of the Little Flower, a Knights of Columbus honor guard stood watch with swords drawn as several hundred Roman Catholics prayed that Michigan voters will "uphold the sanctity of marriage" Tuesday.

Outside the towering granite sanctuary — once the most famous suburban church in the United States — Anthony Kosnik and a few dozen other Catholics paced the sidewalk with signs saying "U.S. Is Not a Theocracy" and "Vote NO!!! on Proposal 2."

Michigan is one of 11 states where constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage will appear on the November ballot. Much of the grass-roots support for these initiatives is church-based. But so is much of the opposition.

"My God is a God of love and compassion," said Kosnik, 74, a lifelong Catholic and retired professor of Christian ethics. "Jesus said nothing about homosexuality at all, but he did talk a lot about love of neighbor."

Polls show the measures passing easily in most states, as they did earlier this year in Missouri and Louisiana. Still, gay rights groups have a chance for victory in Oregon, where they have raised $2.8 million and have defeated three previous efforts to limit gay rights.

In Ohio, the state's four top Republicans and several major business leaders oppose a broadly worded constitutional amendment. Here in Michigan, gay rights supporters have found unexpected allies among some clergy and labor unions, giving them hope, at least, of neutralizing the spillover effect on the presidential election.

From the start, some Democrats have seen the constitutional amendments as a tactic to boost the turnout of President Bush's evangelical Christian base, while backers of the ballot initiatives describe them as a genuine grass-roots movement triggered by the November 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Curt decision to sanction same-sex marriage in that state.

Kosnik and other members of a new group called Catholics for the Common Good held their sidewalk protest on Sunday at the Shrine of the Little Flower because it was the headquarters of the late Rev. Charles E. Coughlin. From 1926 until the late 1930s, Coughlin riveted millions of households and won national political influence with his "Golden Hour of the Little Flower" radio broadcasts, a blend of pro-labor advocacy and anti-Semitism.

Religion and politics
Today, his parish outside Detroit is a bastion of traditional values to some — and a symbol to others of how far religious leaders can go astray when they mix in politics.

Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida urged Michigan's 2.25 million Catholics, nearly a third of the state's registered voters, to pass the amendment in an eight-minute videotape that every Catholic church in the state was strongly encouraged to show during Sunday services this month.

"From the beginning of human memory, marriage has always been understood as the union of one man and one woman," Maida said on the tape. "Let us do our part here in Michigan to preserve that sacred understanding and definition of marriage."

The Michigan Catholic Conference also sent an Oct. 15 letter and a brochure titled "Between One Man and One Woman" to all 596,000 registered Catholic households in the state. And Michigan's seven Catholic dioceses contributed $500,000 to Citizens for the Protection of Marriage, about half the war chest of the umbrella group pushing for the amendment.

Many evangelical Protestant clergy have been equally busy.

"I don't think I knew a gay person until late, late in life. Now it's being slapped in your face every day," the Rev. Sylvia Jordan told her African American congregation at the Family Victory Fellowship Church in Southfield, Mich., on Sunday. "Anything that's against God's law, we as his representatives must stand up and say, 'This is against God's law.' "

Phil Burress, chairman of the Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage, said the Massachusetts court ruling "was like throwing a match into a can of gasoline."

"We collected 402,000 signatures in nine weeks, and the churches were the key to the whole campaign. It was a lightning bolt that hit right in the pulpit and ignited the whole congregation," Burress said.

The story was the same in other states. Led by pastors and churches, Oregon's Defense of Marriage Coalition gathered 244,000 signatures in five weeks. Michigan organizers collected nearly 500,000 signatures in eight weeks.

Amendments vary
The wording of the proposed amendments, however, varies substantially. In at least six states, including Michigan and Ohio, the language is broad enough that it could block not only same-sex marriages but also the granting of health insurance or other domestic partnership benefits to gay couples.

Those concerns have led more than 300 clergy members and congregations in Michigan to oppose Proposal 2, which says the union of one man and one woman "shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose."

Among the opponents are the state's four Episcopal bishops, the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit and local leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Bucking the hierarchy of their church, more than 20 Catholic priests have signed a statement saying the amendment's wording "appears to create serious and undue hardships for a whole class of citizens, and thus to violate Catholic social teaching."

The Michigan AFL-CIO, which includes the state's powerful auto unions, also has come out against Proposal 2, saying it could interfere with collective-bargaining rights.

In Ohio, both GOP senators, Mike DeWine and George V. Voinovich, voted for a federal constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. But they have balked at the state version, which says Ohio will not recognize any "legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance or effect of marriage."

Gov. Bob Taft and other top Ohio Republicans also oppose the ballot proposal. And officials of two major companies headquartered in Ohio, Nationwide Insurance and Limited Brands, signed a letter urging other CEOs to join them in fighting it. "The ability to offer domestic partnership benefits is an important recruiting tool as Ohio companies seek to grow and expand," they said.

Still, polls published last week showed the amendments passing by 67 to 24 percent in Michigan and 57 to 40 percent in Ohio. The big question for both political parties is how many voters there are like Tim and Lori Harrington, who worship at the Shrine of the Little Flower and plan to go to the polls Tuesday mainly to cast their ballots to protect the traditional definition of marriage.

"I'm kind of indifferent about Bush, because he's the worst Republican president of my lifetime," Tim Harrington, 44, said as his wife cradled their 10-week-old daughter and protesters walked by carrying signs. "But while I'm there, I'll probably vote for him."

Broder reported from Washington.