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Mass. GOP chairman refuses to condemn official who made anti-gay remarks, says party must resist ‘cancel culture’

State GOP Chairman Jim Lyons.
State GOP Chairman Jim Lyons.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/file

After days of mounting pressure, the head of the Massachusetts Republican Party on Friday refused calls to condemn a fellow GOP leader for making anti-gay remarks, saying instead the party must be “unafraid to stand up against censorship and ‘cancel culture.’”

Jim Lyons, the GOP chairman, released a lengthy statement Friday evening, hours after nearly every Republican in the Massachusetts House signed a letter demanding he call for Deborah Martell’s resignation as a member of the Republican State Committee or resign his position.

Martell, who represents Ludlow on the 80-member panel that governs the state party, had told a gay congressional candidate she was “sickened” that he and his husband had adopted children together.

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Lyons, a socially conservative Republican, said Friday that “not everybody views the world through the same lens.”

“Members of the Massachusetts House Republican caucus are demanding that I force a woman of deep Catholic faith to resign from the Massachusetts Republican State Committee,” Lyons said. “I acknowledge that she wrote in a manner that was offensive. However, Massachusetts Republican Party bylaws are clear: freedom of speech and religious liberty are values that are unbending and uncompromising.”

Lyons added that party members “must respect” those he said hold “strong religious convictions,” as well as those “whose real-life experiences happen to contrast.”

“In the end,” he added, “we must realize that the danger to our freedoms is real. We as Republicans must not act as the far-left wants us to.”

Lyons, however, had faced withering criticism largely from his own party. Several top Massachusetts Republicans, including Governor Charlie Baker and Vice Chairman Tom Mountain, have called on Martell to resign for the hateful remarks. Even Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel weighed in Friday, condemning Martell’s comments and saying, “there is no place for discrimination in our party.”

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On Friday, 29 of the 30 Republicans in the Massachusetts House signed on to a letter calling Lyons’ silence up to that point “unfathomable and deeply concerning.” Only state Representative Marc Lombardo, of Billerica, hadn’t signed the letter by Friday afternoon.

“If you will not assert your position as the leader of this esteemed party and demand Ms. [Martell’s] resignation, then we call on you to resign as the Chair of the Party and allow for your replacement,” the letter says. “If you are unprepared or unwilling to call for the resignation of Ms. [Martell], then it gives the appearance that you, and by extension, the Massachusetts Republican Party, are tolerant of these beliefs and actions. As a collective, we legislators are not.”

Martell’s comments “are disturbing on many levels and are in no way representative of the values of the Republican Party,” the letter said.

Lyons had not returned requests for comment, nor did Martell.

The incident is deepening divisions within a party already split between moderate Republicans aligned with Baker and hardliners who back Lyons. Lyons was narrowly reelected to the chairmanship in January, winning with a slim three-vote majority. He has pushed to excise Baker further from the party’s operations, an effort that could come to a head at the party’s next meeting on June 9.

In e-mails obtained by the Globe, Martell denigrated the candidacy and family choices of Jeffrey Sossa-Paquette, who is running for a Second Congressional District seat and along with his husband has two children, 19-year-old Ashley and 10-year-old Rylan.

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“I heard he was a ‘married’ homosexual man, who adopted children. I was sickened to hear this,” Martell wrote in a May 15 e-mail to fellow Republicans.

Sossa-Paquette confronted Martell days later and said he planned to go public with her remarks.

“I am a Catholic who loves God and His Ten Commandments. I wish the best for every person in the world, including you!” Martell wrote back to Sossa-Paquette on May 19, according to an e-mail reviewed by the Globe. “What sickened me was that you adopted children. . . . Children deserve a mom and a dad. That’s how God designed marriage and the family.”

Sossa-Paquette pleaded with Lyons to get involved and direct Martell to resign, but said the chairman is “washing his hands of it.”

All three Massachusetts Senate Republicans also condemned Martell’s remarks on Friday and called on GOP leaders to take action.

“Anyone who would make such statements is not suited to serve in a position of leadership in the Massachusetts Republican Party,” the senators said in a joint statement.

The e-mails about Sossa-Paquette were not the first time Martell sent hateful anti-gay remarks to and about fellow Republicans.

When Alex Hagerty, director at large for Massachusetts Log Cabin Republicans, became Abington’s first openly gay selectman, an e-mail circulated among state committee members congratulating him. Martell privately replied “Hell is real!” according to Hagerty, who received a copy of her e-mail from a fellow Republican.

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Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.