Responding to an appeal from their archbishop, most Catholic parishes in Western Washington are collecting signatures after Masses this weekend and over the next few months for Referendum 74, the ballot measure seeking to overturn the state’s new same-sex marriage law.
But pastors at a small yet growing number of parishes – including one in Tacoma – are saying no to Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain’s request. They are refusing to allow petition signing.
The outcome of the petition drive among Catholics could play a major role in whether R-74 makes it to voters. The campaign has a long way to go with nearly 100,000 valid signatures still needed in less than two months.
The Rev. Steve Lantry, pastor of St. Leo Parish on Tacoma’s Hilltop, said he decided not to permit signature gathering after consulting with the parish council and staff.
“We felt this would be very painful and possibly cause harm to faithful and valued members of our community,” said Lantry, referring to gay men and lesbians at St. Leo.
“I think we were concerned it might place them in a position of having to decide whether or not to stay in the community,” the Jesuit priest said. “I would hate to see them leave because they felt the community was not being sensitive to them as people.”
Lantry and his parish of 850 families are in the minority among the 140 Catholic parishes in Western Washington. Besides St. Leo, pastors at six Seattle parishes – including St. James Cathedral – have refused to permit signature gathering for R-74. Some others haven’t decided yet.
At Pierce County’s largest Catholic parish, signature gathering is already under way. The Rev. Michael McDermott, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Tacoma’s West End, had his parish of 1,900 families start collecting after Masses in late March.
“I think it’s an important issue,” said McDermott, who signed a petition himself. “I just wanted to give them the opportunity to sign it.”
Sartain sent a letter to parishioners three weeks ago, defending traditional marriage and asking for their support collecting signatures at their churches.
“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,” Sartain said. “Marriage can only be between a man and a woman because of its unique ends, purpose and place in society.”
Sartain is the spiritual leader for about 600,000 practicing Catholics in Western Washington. Last week, the Vatican appointed him to oversee the overhaul of an umbrella group for nuns that it accused of promoting “radical feminist themes.”
Sartain’s position on marriage is consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church, which has opposed same-sex marriage. And it’s not unprecedented for Catholic parishes to collect signatures to force a vote on gay marriage, as was the case in Maine in 2009.
Besides those in Western Washington, parishes in the Yakima and Spokane dioceses also are collecting signatures.
The Catholic push is a boost to the R-74 campaign.
“It’s a large network of people,” said Joseph Backholm, chairman of R-74 campaign Preserve Marriage Washington. “We certainly need and appreciate their support.”
Besides the Catholic churches, Backholm said more than 1,500 churches are distributing petitions and collecting signatures. In Tacoma, Shiloh, Bethlehem and Eastside Baptist are petition centers, he said. So are Trinity Baptist in Lakewood, Puyallup Community Baptist and Calvary Chapel in Spanaway and South Hill, according to the campaign’s website.
Preserve Marriage Washington needs 120,577 signatures by June 6 to get the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot. As of Friday, the campaign reported a total of 22,137. That’s 18 percent of the required signatures with less than seven weeks to go.
“We will qualify,” Backholm said. “A lot of work has to get done between now and then.”
If the campaign falls short, the same-sex marriage law – passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire – will go into effect June 7.
Greg Magnoni, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Seattle, said churches can legally gather signatures for a ballot measure without violating their tax-exempt status.
But it’s the first time in recent memory that Catholic parishes in Western Washington have done so.
“The archbishop took this step because he sees the redefinition of marriage as such a significant step that people must be given the opportunity to decide,” Magnoni said. “I think the reality is people are divided on this issue.”
St. Leo member James Ott said he applauds Lantry’s decision not to allow signature collecting. But Ott is disappointed in Sartain and Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo for requesting parishes to allow it.
“I don’t think they are practicing God’s word and Jesus’ teaching that all people are loved by God, no matter what their sexual preference is,” said Ott, who said he is gay and supports same-sex marriage. “I’m hurt that people who are supposed to be my religious superiors are saying you’re a second-class citizen.”
Leaving noon-hour Mass Thursday at St. Leo Parish, Brenda Davis said she would sign a petition and vote against same-sex marriage.
“I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman,” said Davis, who attends St. Leo regularly. “It is a sacrament in the Catholic Church.”
But Davis said she understands why the parish is not collecting signatures. “It would hurt people that they work with in the community and serve every day,” she said.
Magnoni said the vast majority of Catholic parishes in Western Washington are collecting signatures for R-74, a step that didn’t occur for a referendum in 2009 that sought to overturn expanded rights for domestic partners.
The state’s Catholic bishops opposed the “everything but marriage” law, speaking out in support of marriage between a man and a woman, Magnoni said.
But then-Seattle Archbishop Alex J. Brunett decided not to get involved in signature collecting for Referendum 71, choosing to focus on what he called “the coming assault on marriage.”
By a 53-47 percent margin, Washington voters approved expanding rights for domestic partners.
Despite asking for support for the R-74 drive, Magnoni said Sartain “left it to a local decision.”
“He recognized that each pastor has to make a decision that’s best for his own parish,” Magnoni said.
McDermott, the pastor at St. Charles, noted that Jesus himself said marriage is between a man and a woman.
“It’s a question of definition,” the priest said. “If you want to call same-sex marriage ‘marriage,’ that’s a person’s prerogative. But it doesn’t change the reality.”
St. Charles member Andrew Kormos supports the signature drive and signed a petition last Sunday after Mass.
“I’m kind of disappointed that not all parishes took the same stand,” Kormos said. “All parishes should support it.”
Elisabeth Donner, another St. Charles member, called it “fantastic that we’ve been encouraged to have the petitions.”
“I think it’s right for the citizens to have a voice for such a huge change,” said Donner, who also signed a petition at church.
Lantry said he disagrees with Sartain on the signature drive.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for religious groups to gather signatures for ballot measures on church property,” he said.
Lantry declined to state his view on same-sex marriage, saying he is not interested in taking sides on a polarizing issue. But he praised Sartain’s defense of marriage as “courageous.”
“I think the archbishop is accurately reflecting the church’s teaching on the nature of sacramental marriage,” Lantry said. “I would not expect anything else from him.”
Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647