Wednesday, March 25, 2009


by Dan Aiello
Bay Area Reporter
Wednesday Mar 25, 2009

From California to Maine, Catholic bishops are increasingly taking on public roles on behalf of what LGBT activists call a "politicized" U.S. Catholic Church. Aiding the faith leaders in their campaign against same-sex marriage is the Knights of Columbus, a tax-exempt fraternal beneficiary society known as the church’s "strong right arm."

And nowhere is the full impact of the Knights of Columbus’ efforts felt than in the fight against awarding same-sex couples marriage rights.

In what turned out to be the largest total contribution from a single organization, $1.4 million of the Yes on 8 campaign’s coffers came from the tax-exempt Knights of Columbus, based in New Haven, Connecticut. The Catholic Church operates its legislative efforts through the little understood entity, of which nearly all Catholic bishops and priests are members.

But the church’s involvement in repealing same-sex marriage rights in California has been largely obscured by the intense public and media attention Mormon leaders received last year for their efforts to pass Proposition 8. After voters passed the anti-same-sex marriage constitutional amendment in November, LGBT protesters rallied outside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ temples throughout the state rather than Catholic churches.

Campaign finance reports indicate that while California’s Conference of Catholic Bishops, as an organization, did not contribute to Prop 8, money did come nationally from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which contributed $200,000 to the Yes on 8 campaign. The minuscule amount belies the fact that Catholic officials played just as a substantial role as their Mormon counterparts in the anti-gay campaign.

The executive director of Dignity USA, an organization for LGBT Catholics, questioned why the church was working against same-sex marriage.

"The core of our faith is love," Marianne Duddy-Burke told the Bay Area Reporter. "When you start from the point that wherever there is love there is God, for the bishops of the church to be working so hard against some love, forcing our relationships to face challenges and obstacles that other kinds of love don’t face, that is totally opposite to what we believe Jesus Christ came to live."

Harry Knox, the religion and faith program director for the Human Rights Campaign, said the community must engage in dialogue with representatives from the Knights of Columbus.

"The Knights of Columbus do a great deal of good in the name of Jesus Christ, but in this particular case, they were foot soldiers of a discredited army of oppression," Knox told the B.A.R. , referring to its role in the Prop 8 campaign.

Knox noted that the Knights of Columbus "followed discredited leaders," including bishops and Pope Benedict XVI. "A pope who literally today said condoms don’t help in control of AIDS," Knox said Tuesday, shortly after the pope’s comments were released.

Catholic officials, however, have deliberately cloaked their actions in opposing marriage equality from public view.

Case in point, San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer, who quietly reached out last summer to Mormon leaders he had met while stationed in Salt Lake City to ask them to become involved in the Prop 8 campaign. It wasn’t until after the election that the archbishop’s letter surfaced.

On November 9 the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Niederauer’s June correspondence "drew in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and proved to be a critical move in building a multi-religious coalition."

One result of Niederauer’s overtures to Mormon leaders - as much as 70 percent of contributions to Prop 8 were from Mormons, claim marriage equality activists. San Francisco Archdiocese spokesman Maurice Healy denies there is any connection between the Mormon money and his boss’ letter.

"The archbishop never has contended that he was responsible for Mormon involvement in the Prop 8 campaign," Healy wrote in an e-mail to the B.A.R. "He contacted and encouraged the LDS Church leaders to become involved in the Prop 8 campaign - and that information was clearly and openly explained in his December 5 column."

In the pastoral message last December, Niederauer wrote that he invited the Mormon Church to participate at the bequest of the California Catholic Conference of Bishops.

"I was asked to contact leaders of the LDS Church whom I had come to know during my 11 years as bishop of Salt Lake City, to ask them to cooperate again, in this election cycle," read Niederauer’s message.

At the same time, the archbishop continued to downplay his churches’ involvement in the anti-gay campaign, stating that the San Francisco archdiocese’s monetary contribution in support of the initiative was nominal. While the archbishop’s assertion was correct, it belied the significant role, not of Catholics in general, but of Catholic organizations, in eliminating marriage rights for California’s same-sex couples.

California Conference of Catholic Bishops spokeswoman Carol Hogan also downplayed the significance of the decision to invite the Mormons to become involved in the Prop 8 fight.

"They were involved with Prop 22 [in 2000] so I don’t think we were responsible for their involvement, but what did the archbishop say? I’m not going to contradict him. If he said, whatever he said, that’s obviously the truth," she said.

Role and effect

No on Prop 8 campaign manager Steve Smith believes Niederauer and the other Catholic bishops’ real influence in Prop 8’s passage lay more in the pastoral messages exhorted from pulpits within Catholic churches than from Niederauer’s experience in Utah, where he befriended Mormon leaders.

"I think they had significant impact from the pulpit, but I doubt broader impacts than that," Smith told the B.A.R.

But Smith might be wrong.

Despite the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ messages calling for reconciliation with gay Catholics, it has continued to fight efforts to award rights to same-sex couples. On January 19, the conference’s attorney, James F. Sweeney, submitted an amicus brief to the state Supreme Court on behalf of the U.S. Catholic Church reasoning Prop 8 is valid and asking the court to uphold the amendment.

And, while both Niederauer and Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony called for reconciliation with the LGBT community and gay Catholics following passage of Prop 8, bishops in Hawaii, New Mexico, North Carolina, New Jersey, Maine, Rhode Island, and other states continued to franchise a "pastoral message" - too similar to be coincidental - opposing not only same-sex marriage, but civil unions and domestic partnerships.

The lesbian-oriented Web site,, called the uniform message a change in church position handed down "straight from the Vatican and the pope himself," in an article explaining how the Catholic Church in New Mexico was pivotal in killing the state’s domestic partnership bill SB 12 on February 25. The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper also claimed "Catholic bishops were instrumental" in killing the domestic partner bill.

It appears that several factors were at work in Prop 8’s passage: the alliance between the financial contributions of the Mormon and Catholic churches, as well as evangelical James Dobson benefactor Howard Ahmanson and the pastoral messages of California’s Catholic bishops and priests to perhaps as many as one-third of the state’s voters the Sunday before the election.

Duddy-Burke was critical of bishops’ actions just days prior to the election.

"The Catholic faith is the single largest denomination in the country, nearly 24 percent," she noted. "The bishops have enormous resources at their disposal. They had fliers at every parish and messages from every pulpit in the state the Sunday before the election. They also worked really hard to silence voices, like Father Geoffrey Farrow, who came out [as gay] in opposition to Prop 8. He not only lost his parish, he lost his candidacy for another position."

The Catholic and Mormon churches have built an effective alliance that has been present in all 31 state battles, leaders noted, and will no doubt be present in any future campaign.

A key component of the Catholic Church’s strategy has been the Knights of Columbus.

Obscure Catholic group

On its Web site the group proclaims itself as "the strong right arm of the Catholic Church."

To LGBT activist Jerry Sloan, the group is "an obscure and uniquely tax-exempt insurance company acting under the guise of a fraternal order."

Classified by a 19th century IRS code as a 501(c)8, the fraternal beneficiary society is able to operate as a tax-exempt organization providing "$70 billion in force" worth of life insurance to its members, according to Patrick Korten, vice president of communications and past grand knight of the organization.

According to the IRS Web site, a 501(c)8 is unlike other 501(c) nonprofit organizations. It is not required to abide by the non-discrimination clause required by Congress for other nonprofits.

Rather, one IRS qualifier for the tax-exempt code states, "membership must be limited." Like the priesthood, the Knights of Columbus membership is restricted to Catholic men. Among those men are "almost every, if not all, bishops and most priests," explained Korten.

Besides providing life insurance to members, Korten told the B.A.R. that the purpose of the organization is to promote and lobby for the social issues important to the Catholic Church, including opposition to stem cell research, abortion, gay rights, and assisted suicide.

"We’re outside the church but very supportive of the church," he said, using Prop 8 as an example. "We were certainly in touch with the bishops of California throughout the campaign."

Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and director of the organization’s national marriage project, told the B.A.R., "the heart of the matter is that many Americans misunderstand the rules of political contributions by religious groups, including many in our own community, who are appalled when they see these large faith-based organizations wield so much influence in the political process."

Among the IRS rules for tax-exempt organizations, religious organizations cannot endorse specific candidates and their support of initiatives, referendums, and legislation must not constitute "a significant percentage" of the organization’s overall budget, according to the IRS Web site. However, "a 501(c)(8) may engage in an unlimited amount of lobbying activities, provided that the lobbying is related to the organization’s exempt purpose," wrote one IRS official, when contacted by the B.A.R.

The Knights of Columbus’ $1.4 million contribution to Prop 8 falls well short of qualifying as a significant percentage of its multi-million dollar budget.

"If it’s a large national organization with a large budget then it’s probably going to be allowed large political expenditures," explained Pizer. "When we’re talking about state elections, these large organizations can exert a tremendous amount of political influence."

"In most cases, it’s not unlawful, it’s just appalling," Pizer added. "To many of us, it seems particularly appalling when these large religious organizations use that disproportionate power to impose their religious views on everybody else. I think some people find it particularly disturbing to see wealth and political power used by religions that themselves were victims of discrimination. That’s a matter of disturbing irony, but not legality."

Knights of Columbus’ connection

The Knights of Columbus’ efforts to prevent same-sex couples from marrying or enjoying the benefits of civil unions is based upon the church belief that there should be no same-sex couples, no practicing homosexuals, no family models other than the ideal, no sex other than for procreation, and no marriage that does not result in procreation - evidenced in 1996 when the Vatican forbade a marriage involving a paraplegic man because intercourse was not possible for the couple.

In addition to the Knights of Columbus’ large contribution, many local and state levels of the organization made contributions to Prop 8 that totaled in the tens of thousands of dollars. But through the creation of its special fund, the Knights of Columbus allowed its members to contribute while avoiding the state’s reporting requirements.

Korten explained that the contribution to Prop 8 - three donations totaling $1.4 million - came from "a special culture of life fund we established," which he claimed was funded "mostly" by members. Korten did not provide the amount his organization contributed, the names of the contributors to the fund, or the amounts contributed by individuals to the fund.

But Korten was proud of the influence of the Knights of Columbus in the outcomes of the same-sex ballot battles throughout the country.

"I think it is fair to say the Knights of Columbus have been involved in virtually every one of the 31 states that have had referendums," on same-sex marriage, Korten said.

Korten also said the organization opposes civil unions.

"We support the church on that," Korten said. "And quite simply because the [heterosexual] family is the most important fundamental unit of society. A mother and a father is unquestionably the ideal. The purpose of the church is to provide the optimal environment in the begetting, raising, and education of children."

Being homosexual is not the sin, explained Korten, but any homosexual act, and by nature same-sex couples imply the commission of those acts, is sinful.

"As you know, there is absolutely nothing inherently sinful about having a same-sex attraction, but the church also teaches that behavior is what you are held accountable for," Korten said.

Pizer noted that protection from religion is important.

"This is a diverse, pluralistic society," she said. "Protection from religion is just as important as protection of religion. These religious institutions are using fear to impose their dogma on society."

Pizer said that what is often lost in the debate is that many in the LGBT community come from religious families and are practicing Christians who are poorly served by religious leaders.

"We have turned a corner in our movement and I think it’s appropriate for us at this point to say that we are good people. We have loving family relationships, we contribute to society. We are good, moral people," Pizer said. "And it’s wrong for religious leaders to condemn us and to incite bigotry against us. Those who demonize us are fear mongering and its wrong and they should stop."

She added that in states where there are laws to protect LGBTs in employment, housing, and families, people should speak up whenever possible "against the defamatory statements about [the LGBT community] that are false and damaging."

Pizer also said that the LGBT community must bring forth religious leaders who will represent compassionate values of faith and the true representation of the LGBT community "as the loving and just - and for many - religious people we are."

Catholic Church vs. Catholic voters

In a San Francisco Chronicle opinion piece, Field poll director Mark DiCamillo indicated that the Sunday before the November election - where religious leaders of several faiths called for support of Prop 8 - may have been a determining factor in the Tuesday election outcome.

Some LGBT leaders agreed with that assessment.

"There’s always something to be said about having an election only two days after Sunday services," said Andrea Shorter, who was just hired by Equality California to help strengthen coalitions, including in the faith community. "I think it’s something that we’ve been aware of and it’s something that we have to consider in any strategy."

"Certainly we’re moving forward with the understanding that the Catholic collective, not only singularly as in the Knights of Columbus, but collectively, they’re clearly well resourced and that’s something that we have to work against," added Shorter. "But let’s be very careful that we recognize that people of faith include many in the LGBT community. Let’s also not forget we’re only a few points away from winning. The numbers are moving our way and I think that people of faith are among those."

According to the Field poll, Catholics currently comprise 25 percent of registered California voters, a number that is increasing along with the Latino population, which is predominantly Catholic. Half of California’s Catholics are Latino, according to the survey.

Exit polls conducted November 4 indicated Catholic votes were as much as 30 percent of the total number of votes cast, and of that, one third of total votes or 64 percent supported Prop 8, while 36 percent opposed it.

Shorter said that exit polls can be skewed when non-practicing Catholics, for example, are asked religious affiliation.

"But, no matter what the numbers are, it’s clear that we need to have a refined strategy to reach out to the Latino communities as well as reaching out to the other communities of color," she said.

Shorter told the B.A.R. that any strategy must include reaching out to Catholics as well.

Calls to Father Joe Healy at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in the Castro were not returned, but the B.A.R. did speak to a Catholic priest in Modesto, Father Joseph Illo, about his Sunday service prior to the election. Illo said that he "absolutely supported" Prop 8, and his parish had worked to pass it, but he also told his parishioners if they voted for Barack Obama or Congressman Dennis Cardoza (D-California), both pro-choice candidates, they should go to confession for the sin of their vote. He did not ask parishioners to do the same for Prop 8.

"Some issues are weightier than others," he said. Supporting the war and supporting Prop 8 were not as big an issue as supporting pro-choice candidates, he explained.