What happens when churches support anti-gay ballot measures?

Assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio and author of the forthcoming book Gay Rights at the Ballot Box

According to the recent Minnesota Star Tribune article “Priests Told Not to Voice Dissent” (January 15, 2012), archibishop John Nienstedt is attempting to mandate the Catholic Church’s support of the Minnesota constitutional amendment, which defines marriage as a union only between a man and a woman. This constitutional amendment effectively bans same-sex marriage and is similar to the 34 same-sex marriage bans that have happened in 31 different states from Hawaii to Maine since 1998. Most of these states, like Minnesota, did not have legalized same-sex marriage before the constitutional amendment was passed, although these constitutional amendments eliminated same-sex marriage rights in California and Maine.

Religious support of anti-gay ballot measures—both same-sex marriage bans and the wide array of other anti-gay referendums and initiatives that have been sponsored by the Religious Right since 1974—is common. Although the public spotlight is on the archdiocese in Minnesota, in my research on anti-gay ballot measures I found that usually the support of evangelical Christians and Mormons is more visible. Evangelicals have been involved in anti-gay ballot measure campaigns since the late 1970s and early 1980s, after national attention to Anita Bryant’s involvement in a Dade County referendum on gay rights. Sometimes this involvement includes using church pastors as spokespeople or figureheads for campaigns. Mormons were sporadically involved in earlier anti-gay ballot measures, but the Mormon sect has become an important part of the Religious Right since the 1998 same-sex marriage ban in Hawaii. This involvement includes fundraising and mobilization through organizations like the National Organization for Marriage.

What I find so different about the Minnesota archdiocese’s involvement is the prohibition against “open dissension” within the church and the guidelines that Nienstedt lays out for special “marriage prayers” during mass, along with plans to send teams to speak at Minnesota high schools about the important of marriage. It reminds me of the involvement of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment that eliminated newly-won same-sex marriage rights for Californians. The documentary 8: The Mormon Proposition lays out a train of evidence that high level LDS officials led a campaign to bankroll and support the Yes on 8 campaign. Even the Salt Lake Times referred to the public attention on organized Mormon support for the same-sex marriage ban a “PR Fiasco” for LDS, and there was public debate on whether or not LDS should be able to maintain its tax-exempt status due to its coordinated participation in political campaigns.

Reading about this coordinated effort by Minnesota’s archdiocese, I wonder if it will follow through with a coordinated campaign to support the same-sex marriage ban on the ballot in November. I don’t know the effects this political organizing will have on the experience of Catholics in Minnesota. Will this coordinated attempt unify practitioners within the church or will it lead to dissension (open or not) and disharmony? And if the church does follow through, I’m curious whether the public spotlight will shine on the church in the same way that it did on LDS after Proposition 8.


Amy Stone is author of Gay Rights at the Ballot Box (March 2012) and assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio.

“Amy L. Stone crafts a compelling, deeply textured portrayal of the more than 200 anti-gay ballot campaigns in the U.S. since 1974. Through interviews with movement leaders and other sources, Stone deftly analyzes the tension between winning campaigns and building a sustainable movement, between national, urban activists and local, rural communities, as well as debates over tactics and messaging. Gay Rights at the Ballot Box is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the central, disturbing role anti-gay politics has played in contemporary U.S. politics.”
—Sean Cahill, Ph.D., Fenway Institute and New York University

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