BELLINGHAM, Wash. — As the volunteer regional director for Preserve Marriage Washington in Whatcom County, Wash., Linda Morrell adheres to individual parish policies that welcome — or bar — campaign activities.

While some pastors in Bellingham, a part of the Seattle Archdiocese, allow campaign representatives like Morrell, a Catholic, to distribute materials or raise funds, others don’t. In fact, the archdiocese has provided no funds for the campaign to defeat same-sex “marriage,” while the state’s two other dioceses allowed parishioners to collect money for that purpose.

“It depends on what part of the state you are standing in. When you go to [the Dioceses of] Spokane and Yakima, the Catholic Church has taken an active role. But on the west side, because of the political climate, Archbishop [J. Peter] Sartain has had to tread more lightly. It’s a delicate dance,” said Morrell.

Almost six months after President Barack Obama publicly endorsed same-sex “marriage,” four U.S. states — Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington — will ask voters to address the issue on the ballot this November. But, as Morrell’s experience suggests, state Catholic conferences — and, in some cases, individual dioceses — have responded to the political challenge in different ways.

This year, Maine’s sole Diocese of Portland has spotlighted Catholic teaching on marriage, but provided no resources to the campaign organization Protect Marriage Maine, which is driving opposition to Question 1, the ballot initiative to approve same-sex “marriage.”

However, in Minnesota, where voters must decide whether to pass a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, the Catholic conference and the campaign organization Minnesota for Marriage have worked together.

Maryland’s bishops approved a similar strategy, as voters weigh the Question 6 ballot referendum asking them to approve a law legalizing same-sex “marriage” that was passed earlier this year. On Sept. 26, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore headlined an interfaith event, “Faith, Fellowship and Action to Uphold Marriage in Maryland,” organized by the campaign organization Maryland Marriage Alliance.

Same-sex “marriage” is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C., but it has been consistently defeated when put to a popular vote, with voters in 30 states backing amendments that define marriage as between one man and one woman.

Polling suggests that Maine is the most likely state to embrace same-sex marriage this year, though activists on both sides of the debate acknowledge that surveys of public opinion on this issue are not reliable.


The Struggle in Maine

In 2009, when Maine voters last confronted an attempt to legalize same-sex “marriage,” Bishop Richard Malone was closely identified with the political action committee formed to repeal a state law approving same-sex “marriage.”

Marc Mutty, director of the Portland Diocese’s office of public affairs, took a leave of absence to head Stand for Marriage Maine.

But after helping to repeal the law, Bishop Malone, now bishop of Buffalo, N.Y., and still current apostolic administrator of Portland, did not attend the 2009 election-night victory celebration and said that more catechetical work was needed to address the confusion about marriage that led some Catholics to publicly challenge his leadership.

“This has been brutal, yet I experienced the great grace of my vocation as a bishop,” Bishop Malone told the Register after the 2009 election.

In 2012, however, he stayed out of the political campaign to defeat the Question 1 referendum.

“The message is the same. The vehicle for getting the message out is radically different. We are not paying for or loaning out staff to the referendum campaign Protect Marriage Maine,” said Suzanne Lafreniere, the associate director of public policy for the Diocese of Portland.

“We are 100% in support of them, but our message is a little different because it’s authentically Catholic. Bishop Malone issued a letter, and the Knights of Columbus have helped us run ‘Defending Marriage in the Public Square’ events, which also provide opportunities for fellowship,” said Lafreniere.

“When you run a 30-second ad, how much do you get of Catholic teaching? We are a small diocese, and it was decided that our best efforts were put toward helping Catholics understand and study Church teaching.”

She acknowledged that this new “approach has been a little controversial, but no matter how people vote, catechesis will be needed in the future.” And she noted that in the wake of the 2009 election, the diocese introduced the Courage apostolate, which assists Catholics with same-sex attraction who seek to live according to Catholic teaching. 

“When you are speaking the truth about marriage, you have to be pastoral and offer solutions,” said Lafreniere.


Minnesota Game Plan

The Church’s game plan is very different in Minnesota, where the state’s bishops have played a leading role in the campaign to pass a state constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Further, Jason Adkins, the executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, also serves as the vice chairman of Minnesota for Marriage.

Dioceses in the state organized their response in “three phases — education, prayer and action — in two- or three-month blocks. It started slow, like a steadily dripping faucet, and then we put on a full-court press for the past two months,” explained Erich Hastreiter, the parish captain for the campaign at the Church of St. Peter’s in St. Paul.

Hastreiter has organized Holy Hours and other devotions during this period. From this coming Sunday until election night, St. Peter’s will offer perpetual Eucharistic adoration.

Hastreiter has also worked with Minnesota for Marriage, using its recommended speakers to headline debates. The father of three has also helped to staff booths at the state fair and phone banks for getting out the vote.

The campaign for “marriage equality” in Minnesota has attracted some big names, drawing sizable donations from General Mills and Nabisco. But Bishop John Quinn of Winona told the Register that Church leaders hope to empower the faithful to stand up for a bedrock social institution despite the powerful political and economic interests that advocate a redefinition of marriage.

“We want to support what is already in the hearts of the majority of our people and to equip them to say that marriage between a man and a woman is not discrimination; it is recognizing the uniqueness of a foundational building block of our society,” said Bishop Quinn.

Bishop Quinn has also joined together with other Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders to articulate a common vision of the importance of traditional marriage. He noted that the religious-liberty concerns fueled by the federal law mandating contraception in private employer health plans has highlighted the need for joint action by religious leaders.

The situation in Washington State, where Referendum 74 asks voters to approve or reject a law already passed by the state Legislature, is far more complicated.


Controversy in Washington

Earlier this year, controversy erupted when Archbishop Sartain of Seattle asked local parishes to help with a petition drive to secure a referendum on same-sex “marriage,” and some Seattle pastors said they would not participate.

Greg Magnoni, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Seattle and the Washington Catholic Conference, told the Register that the “Catholic Conference in the state did not fund the political coalition, and the Archdiocese of Seattle did not participate in funding Preserve Marriage Washington.”

“The other two dioceses did take up collections to assist the campaign,” he noted, but the “Archdiocese of Seattle made a commitment that it would not use any archdiocesan funds to support the campaign. That was a decision made so as not to further create the appearance of a controversy.”

Magnoni noted that the state’s bishops have “funded an education campaign” for their own flocks. All three dioceses distributed a letter, “Marriage and the Good of Society: A Pastoral statement regarding  Referendum 74.” Bulletin inserts “helped Catholics understand Church teaching on marriage," and expressed sensitivity for the needs of all persons, including those with same-sex attraction.

Preserve Marriage Washington, the state campaign organization leading the effort to block the passage of a state law legalizing same-sex “marriage,” raised about $2.4 million, including $1.1  million from the National Organization for Marriage. Its rival, Washington United for Marriage, has reportedly raised almost $11 million, including $2.5 from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and $600,000 from Bill and Melinda Gates.

Across the nation, “marriage equality” activists have framed their cause as a civil-rights issue, and in Washington State that message has gained traction, exposing fissures within the local Church, with some Catholics publicly attacking the U.S. bishops’ ongoing opposition to same-sex “marriage.”

“It’s been challenging,” acknowledged Linda Morrell, the volunteer regional coordinator for Preserve Marriage Washington.

She noted that her own pastor barred her from distributing materials or raising money: “He wanted everyone to feel welcome in the parish.”

Yet despite Washington’s liberal climate and the vast disparity on fundraising between the two campaigns, Morrell remains optimistic.

“The people I am working with believe that marriage is between a man and a woman to the very core of their being, and they do not think that those who believe this are bigoted. I stay focused and let God lead me through this," said Morrell.

“I didn’t think we would have enough volunteers to distribute thousands of pieces of literature, but 16,000 homes have received our materials. A family of eight children, ages 4 to 19, took our literature and blanketed a thousand houses. People are energized.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.