Leaders of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts are urging legislators to amend the state Constitution to ban gay marriage, supporting a ballot initiative that gay rights groups believe could also eliminate health benefits now offered to same-sex partners.
But, breaking with the church hierarchy, three priests took a stand yesterday against the gay marriage ban, citing Catholic teaching on social justice and calling the amendment discriminatory to children born to gay parents.
''Especially in light of the present crisis of abuse, we want to make sure that all children are protected and receive equal rights,'' the Rev. Walter F. Cuenin, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton, said in a statement read by parishioner Janey Todd. ''This amendment would certainly deprive some children of their rights simply because their parents were not legally married.''
''This does nothing, nothing to protect family life,'' said the Rev. Richard Lewandowski, pastor of St. Camillus parish in Fitchburg. ''It only weakens it.''
The Rev. Thomas J. Carrroll, director of the Jesuit Urban Center in the South End, also spoke against the ban.
The Legislature's 17-member Joint Committee on Public Service must take a stance on the issue by April 24 for legislative leaders to schedule a constitutional convention by May 8. House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham both declined to detail their plans for the measure yesterday, though Birmingham has said he opposes the measure. One-quarter of the Legislature's 200 members must approve the question, in constitutional conventions this year and next, to put it on the 2004 ballot.
Opponents to the ban on gay marriage dominated the debate during yesterday's State House hearing - a seven-hour discussion that was by turns emotional and incendiary. AFL-CIO treasurer Kathleen Cassavant cried when describing her wish that her gay son get the same protections and provisions as heterosexual teenagers. State Senator Cheryl A. Jacques, a Needham Democrat, drew congratulations when she announced that her lesbian partner gave birth to twins on Friday. And gay and lesbian activists jeered and laughed when Chester Darling, the attorney who won the US Supreme Court case that allowed gay groups to be banned from South Boston's St. Patrick's Day Parade, asserted: ''I'm as liberal as the next guy.''
Darling was one of about a half-dozen people who spoke in favor of the measure, including C.J. Doyle of the Catholic Action League, an independent group that sued to successfully overturn Boston's health benefits for domestic partners. If same-sex marriage were permitted, Doyle said, ''not only would the integrity of the family be gravely compromised, but the moral and legal barriers erected against bigamy, polygamy, and incest would be weakened, perhaps fatally.''
The Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm for the Boston Archdiocese and the state's three other Catholic dioceses, is lobbying legislators to advance the constitutional amendment. Both conference associate director Daniel Avila and lobbyist Gerry D'Avolio attended the hearing, but neither testified. Avila said the Catholic bishops had previously endorsed the amendment, and his organization helped collect signatures.
''This is a critical issue and the church is very insistent and very consistent that, while no individual should be without protection, marriage where a mother and a father are present in a child's life ... is the ideal situation,'' Avila said.
The priests who opposed the measure disagreed: ''According to Catholic teaching, it is not sufficient only to avoid unjust discrimination,'' said Lewandowski. ''Homosexual persons must always be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. ''
Darling, acting as attorney for the proponents, Massachusetts Citizens for Marriage, repeatedly refused to describe the benefits that would be protected or denied couples under the amendment. The language states that only heterosexual marriages will be recognized and that no other relationship will receive ''the benefits or incidents exclusive to marriage'' from the state.