Same-Sex-Adoption, Catholic Teaching Dispute Leads to GOP Divisions in Massachusetts

“Children deserve a mom and a dad,” state Republican committee member Deborah Martell wrote adding, “That’s how God designed marriage and the family.”

Massachusetts Old State House in Boston's historic city center.
Massachusetts Old State House in Boston's historic city center. (photo: Shutterstock)

BOSTON — An heated exchange about same-sex-couple adoption between two obscure figures in Republican politics in Massachusetts has led to far-reaching questions about free expression of religion, the rights of homosexuals and cancel culture.

The controversy arose as a result of criticism made by Deborah Martell, a state Republican committee member who is Catholic, of a homosexual Republican political candidate’s same-sex civil marriage and adoption of two children.

The governor of the state, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, the two main daily newspapers in Boston, and almost all GOP state legislators and state party officials have gotten involved, with some prominent figures in the state calling for the resignation of the state party chairman because he won’t support calls for Martell to resign.

But the chairman, James Lyons Jr., a political conservative and a Catholic, has resisted calls for him to quit, and he seems to be maintaining support from his slim majority on the Massachusetts Republican State Committee, an 80-member elected body that governs the party.

Lyons says he’s defending the right of a fellow elected official to express Catholic moral teachings in public, and that establishment figures who used to run the state party in Massachusetts are trying to force him out because they want to regain control of the party’s money and fund-raising mechanism.

“And the people that were in power don’t like the fact that we have a conservative, pro-life Catholic whose primary focus is to elect Republicans in the legislature to promote the agenda of the Republican Party. And I have no intention of going along with the radical agenda being pushed on Beacon Hill,” Lyons told the Register in a telephone interview, referring to the site of the Democrat-controlled state legislature in Boston.

The conflict stems from the longshot, previously low-profile candidacy of Jeffrey Sossa-Paquette, a small business owner in central Massachusetts, who has announced he is running for the Republican nomination for Congress against an entrenched Democrat in his 13th term who last won by more than 30 percentage points.

In mid-May, a Republican group invited the candidate to speak at an event. Martell sent an email message to others objecting to Sossa-Paquette’s appearance, suggesting that the candidate’s civil-law marriage to another man is not real and saying she was “sickened” to learn that the two men have adopted two children.

The candidate contacted Martell by email, calling her a “bigot” and threatening to expose the issue publicly.

Martell responded, again by email, by calling herself “a Catholic who loves God and His Ten Commandments,” and standing by her disapproval of the candidate’s adoption of children. “Children deserve a mom and a dad,” she wrote. “That’s how God designed marriage and the family.”


Widespread Criticism

Someone leaked Martell’s email messages to The Boston Globe, which ran several news stories about them. Many in the Republican Party called on Martell to resign — and on Lyons to call on Martell to resign. (As an elected official in the middle of her term, she can’t be forced out.)

But Lyons refused to do that. Pressure built in early June when 29 of the 30 Republican state representatives in Massachusetts signed a letter calling on Lyons to demand that Martell resign, or resign himself. In response, Lyons released a statement June 4 calling the “manner” in which Martell wrote “offensive,” but describing Martell as “a woman of deep Catholic faith.” Lyons also expressed support in the statement for what he called “freedom of speech and religious liberty.”

The Boston Herald, the other major daily newspaper in the state’s largest city, called in an editorial for Lyons to resign as party chairman. It decried Lyons’ description of Catholic moral values, saying: “We didn’t realize bigotry was compatible with Catholicism.”

State Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, who unsuccessfully challenged Lyons for the state party chairmanship in January 2021, calls Lyons’ argument that he is standing for religious liberty “disingenuous.”

“Also, as a Catholic, I find it sad that Mr. Lyons is saying this speech is in line with Catholic doctrine, let’s not even get into papal decrees — but I was raised with the Golden Rule and the simplest test of Christianity was to ask the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ and I personally don’t think this is how He would have dealt with a father who happened to be gay,” Dooley told the Register by email.

On Dooley’s side is Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican who supports legal abortion and same-sex civil marriage. The governor has referred to Martell’s comments as “bigotry,” called for Martell to resign and has declined to express support for Lyons. Ronna McDaniel, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, also condemned Martell’s remarks.


Lyons Retains Support

Yet Lyons, 68, a former state representative from Andover and pro-life activist who runs a family business selling flowers, Christmas trees, and ice cream, remains popular with conservatives in the party. Among conservative activists, Lyons is far more popular than the governor.

The Register’s interviews and email exchanges with about a dozen Republican state committee members during the past week suggest that Lyons retains about the same level of support he had before. Committee members do not expect him to resign.

During this time, Martell has not given interviews. She did not respond to an interview request for this story. According to multiple sources, during a quarterly closed-door meeting of state party committee members on June 9, Martell expressed regret for the way she phrased her opposition to same-sex adoption in the email messages but not for supporting her understanding of Catholic teaching, and she refused to resign.

The four Catholic diocesan bishops in Massachusetts have not commented publicly on the dispute. Representatives for all four did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

Catholic moral teaching says homosexuals should be treated with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” and that they should not be subject to “unjust discrimination”— but it also calls same-sex sexual attraction “objectively disordered” and calls homosexuals to chastity. The Vatican’s teaching agency, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 2003 called same-sex-couple adoption of children “gravely immoral.” Pope Francis in June 2015 restated Catholic moral teaching on parenthood, saying that children need a mother and a father in order to mature properly.


Will Catholic Adoption Agency Restart?

The same-sex-adoption-related dispute in Massachusetts boiled over shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court seemed to reopen the possibility that Catholic agencies might assist in adoptions without steering children to same-sex couples even in places that guarantee the right of same-sex couples to adopt. In a narrowly tailored unanimous ruling in Fulton v. Philadelphia, a majority of justices signaled they may support overturning a 1990 Supreme Court decision that allows state and local governments to require all private agencies (including religious agencies) to work with same-sex couples as foster parents and adoptive parents.

In 2006, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, ended more than 100 years of adoptions facilitated by the archdiocese’s charitable arm after state officials said the Church could not discriminate against same-sex couples when selecting adoptive parents. The previous fall, the archdiocese’s Catholic Charities had acknowledged to having quietly steered 13 children to same-sex parents in order to comply with state regulations.

C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, on June 17 called on Cardinal O’Malley to resume Catholic adoptions. 

“The Catholic community of Greater Boston needs and deserves an authentically Catholic adoption agency,” Doyle said in a written statement. “With today's action by the High Court, no legal obstacles remain.”

A spokesman for Cardinal O’Malley could not be reached for comment.

Matt McDonald is the editor of New Boston Post and a National Catholic Register correspondent.