63 ex-Catholic priests in Washingon: We back gay marriage

Sixty-three former Roman Catholic priests in Washington state will announce on Thursday that they support Referendum 74, which would make Washington the nation’s seventh state to legalize marriage between same-sex couples.

The stand comes as the state’s four Catholic bishops intensify a campaign of pastoral statements and videos urging parishoners to vote against marriage equality.

In the latest pastoral letter, Bishop Joseph J. Tyson of the Diocese of Yakima told his 41 parishes that Referendum 74 “jeopardizes freedom rather than expands it” and “endangers our religious liberty and the rights of conscience.”

“Once marriage is redefined as a genderless contract, it will become legally discriminatory for public and private institutions such as schools to promote the unique meaning of marriage . . .This law will challenge our right to educate about the unique value of children being raised by his or her own mother and father in a stable home,” Tyson wrote.

The 63 former priests, with collectively more than 800 years of service to the Church, beg to differ.

“We are uneasy with the aggressive efforts of Catholic bishops to oppose R-74 and want to support the 71 percent of Catholics (Public Religion Research Institute) who support civil marriage for gays as a valid Catholic position,” they said in a statement.

Former priest Pat Callahan, who organized the statement, added: “This is the first public action we’ve taken.” Callahan was in the Catholic priesthood for 15 years.

Washington, Maryland and Maine will vote on marriage equality this November. Minnesota is voting on a constitutional amendment that would enshrine marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.

The ex-priests in Washington are taking a lesson from the playbook of their counterparts in Minnesota.

Minneapolis-St. Paul Archbishop John Nienstedt has warned any active priests opposing the gay marriage ban to keep their feelings to themselves. With no threat of ecclesiastical retaliation, three retired priests and dozens of former priests have made public statements against the proposed amendment.

In Washington, ecclesiastical shepherds are finding a lot of trouble herding their flocks.

Same-sex marriage legislation passed last winter. It was championed by Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Catholic: Its chief legislative sponsor was State Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, a practicing Catholic and long-partnered gay.

A group called Catholics for Marriage Equality-Washington was prominent in Seattle’s Pride Day march last June.

Several major Catholic parishes — including Seattle’s St. James Cathedral — refused Archbishop J. Peter Sartain’s request to serve as collection center for petitions to force a vote on same-sex marriage.

With same-sex marriage fueled by an $8.5 million campaign warchest, the Catholic bishops are taking their case to the pews.

“Although our surrounding popular culture may define human identity by the terms ‘gay’ and ‘straight,’ our church has a deeper and more accurate understanding of human identity based on male and female — sexual difference,” Tyson argued.

The bishop, a young and outspoken conservative, wrote of “recent attacks on churches, businesses and nonprofit organizations that express their conscientious objection to the redefinition of marriage.”

Tyson even published a picture of his mother and father at their marriage more than a half-century ago.

“I opened this letter with a wedding picture of my parents,” he wrote. “I close by asking you to consider what kind of picture of marriage you desire to give to the next generation. If you and I don’t uphold marriage as the union of a man and a woman, who will?”

Washington’s faith community is divided over same-sex marriage. Episcopal Bishop Gregory Rickel has endorsed Referendum 74 as a “conservative proposal” consistent with basic Christian teaching and the Christian life. Two prominent Methodist pastors appear in TV ads backing marriage equality.

Catholics for Marriage Equality, in a statement this weekend, said: “We are shocked when we read the language and examples used by our bishops to incite fear in our Catholic brothers and sisters if Referendum 74 passes. The message of Jesus is love and compassion, not fear.”

Same-sex marriage has never won a statewide vote, although Washington voters approved civil unions in a 2009 referendum.

But the statewide Elway Poll last week pegged support for Referendum 74 at 57 percent.