Dec 04, 2008

The more you learn about California's Proposition 8, the more it raises church-state concerns.

When well-funded sectarian allies manipulate the democratic process to take away the civil rights of a small minority of Americans, fundamental constitutional safeguards are gravely jeopardized. Conservative religious forces wanted to write their theological viewpoint about marriage into civil law, and they didn't mind trampling on the rights of same-sex couples in the process.

In his column this week in Catholic San Francisco, Archbishop George H. Niederauer says his archdiocese didn't donate any funds to the campaign in favor of Prop. 8, but did pay for, and appropriately disclose, printing and distribution of flyers to parishes. He also casually reports that it was he – a Roman Catholic prelate – who recruited the mega-bucks Mormon Church into the battle over Prop. 8.

"Last May," recalls Niederauer, "the staff of the [state Catholic] Conference office informed me that leaders and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) had given their support to the campaign for Proposition 22 in the year 2000, and were already considering an involvement in connection with Proposition 8. Accordingly, I was asked to contact leaders of the LDS Church whom I had come to know during my eleven years as Bishop of Salt Lake City, to ask them to cooperate again, in this election cycle. I did write to them and they urged the members of their Church, especially those in California, to become involved."

As numerous news media accounts testify, wealthy Mormon Church members around the country subsequently poured millions of dollars and work-hours into the pro-Prop. 8 campaign. They did much of the heavy lifting while the Catholic hierarchy and evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant churches helped man the battle stations.

Mormons, Catholics and fundamentalists more or less regard each other as heretics – and ironically have significantly different theologies about marriage – but they put those differences aside temporarily to form a theocratic alliance.

Archbishop Niederauer brushes aside any church-state concerns with all of this.

"Some would say that, in light of the separation of church and state, churches should remain silent about any political matter," he asserts. "However, religious leaders in America have the constitutional right to speak out on issues of public policy."

But that comment just scratches the surface of this issue.

Of course, churches have a right to speak out on religious, moral and political issues. But Niederauer and his cronies did much more than that: they orchestrated a massive national political campaign to write their church teachings into civil law at the expense of a vulnerable minority.

The pro-Prop. 8 advertising campaign was divisive and often deceptive. Voters certainly were never told that church hierarchs were plotting behind the scenes to impose church dogma on the state through constitutional fiat.

Many Americans, both gay and straight, are outraged at this sequence of events, and the more they learn, the madder they get. Some of them are even protesting outside Mormon, Catholic and evangelical congregations that spearheaded the Prop. 8 drive.

That upsets Niederauer. In his column, he deplores the heated dialogue and grouses, "We need to be able to disagree without being disagreeable."

Easy for him to say: Nobody manipulated the political process to remove his civil rights. Frankly, when churches plunge into politics, they have to expect the give and take that goes on in the public square. If you can't stand the heat, as Harry Truman put it, get out of the kitchen.

Proposition 8 is now before the California Supreme Court. Here's hoping the justices examine the issues carefully – and keep church-state separation in mind.