Catholics warn of `national conflict' over gay marriage

September 22, 2011

NEW YORK (RNS) The nation's top Catholic bishop issued a stern challenge
to the Obama administration's decision not to support a federal ban on
gay marriage, and warned the president that his policies could
"precipitate a national conflict between church and state of enormous
proportions."


In a letter sent Tuesday (Sept. 20), Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New
York, who heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he and
other prelates have grown increasingly concerned since the
administration announced last February that it would no longer defend
the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act in court.


The Obama administration says it believes the law that defines
marriage as between one man and one woman is unconstitutional.


Dolan said the bishops are especially upset that the administration
and opponents of DOMA are framing their argument as a civil rights
issue, which he said equates "opposition to redefining marriage with
either intentional or willfully ignorant racial discrimination."


He also argued that traditional marriage is best for society, and
that treating gay marriage as a civil right would lead to discrimination
against believers and against church agencies that could not, for
example, accommodate gay couples as adoptive parents.


"The administration's failure to change course on this matter will
... precipitate a national conflict between church and state of enormous
proportions and to the detriment of both institutions," Dolan warned.


The two-page letter was followed by a three-page analysis from the
USCCB's legal staff that charges the administration with "hostility" to
traditional marriage and a "new, more aggressive position" on behalf of
gay marriage. In especially strong language, it also argues that the
administration treats millions of Americans who oppose gay marriage "as
if they were bigots."


The tenor of the bishops' warning appears to signal an escalation in
their battle against gay marriage, as well as a hardening of their
opposition to Obama just as the 2012 presidential campaign gets
underway. The bishops' new hard line was welcomed by conservatives, and
it comes as Obama is facing record-low opinion ratings.


The bishops' stance carries risks, however, as voters appear to be
focused on the state of the economy more than gay marriage. Moreover,
polls show a steady erosion of opposition to gay rights of all kinds
among the U.S. population, with Catholics more open to endorsing gay
relationships than many other faith groups.


The bishops have been careful to frame their opposition to Obama's
policies in the context of religious freedom and defending the right of
individuals and religions to act according to the dictates of their
conscience.


On Monday (Sept. 19), the day before Dolan sent his letter to Obama
on gay marriage, the bishops of Washington, Maryland and Delaware sent a
letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that
strongly objects to proposed regulations mandating health care coverage
of contraception.


For the Catholic Church, which considers the use of artificial birth
control a sin, the mandate is "a radically new and unprecedented attack
on religious freedom," said Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Baltimore
Archbishop Edwin O'Brien and Wilmington Bishop W. Francis Malooly.