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With marriage equality law, Catholic bishops refuse to separate civil rights from religious rights

The US Conference of Bishops is imposing a religious view of marriage on the secular world.

President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act on the South Lawn of the White House on Dec. 13.OLIVER CONTRERAS/NYT

When President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law last week, Jamie L. Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, was one of thousands who attended the ceremony.

“The president’s speech was very touching. I was very moved,” Manson, who is gay, told me. Yet, however overwhelmed by sentiment she might be, her presence and that of every Catholic there — including Biden — defied the position taken by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops lobbied strongly against the new law, which mandates federal recognition of same-sex marriage even though it also protects religious organizations from any requirement to do the same.


That unyielding dissent set the US bishops apart from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which supported the law even though it, too, opposes same-sex marriage. Top officials from the LDS Church even attended the signing ceremony. For sure, the official Mormon position, which focused on the religious rights aspect of the legislation, did not satisfy everyone — especially gay Mormons. But Manson said it showed “an ability to separate civil rights” from religious doctrine “in a way the Catholic clergy are unable to do.”

The statement from the LDS Church on the day of the bill signing made that distinction clear. It reiterated church doctrine that defines marriage as a union between “a man and a woman.” But it also celebrated “the worthy work of civil engagement” and the fact that “our efforts are helping the nation pursue freedom, fairness, and respect for all.”

The religious liberty protections included in the legislation weren’t enough for the Catholic bishops. In a statement issued after the US Senate voted to support it, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who is also chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, called them “insufficient.” Meanwhile, Dolan also worried that “wedding cake bakers, faith-based adoption and foster care providers, religious employers seeking to maintain their faith identity, faith-based housing agencies — are all at greater risk of discrimination under this legislation.”


The split between the Mormon and Catholic churches on the law also showed a difference in attitude toward their congregations. While the LDS Church referred to “our LGBTQ brothers and sisters,” Dolan’s statement referred to “people who experience same-sex attraction.” As Mark Silk wrote for the Religion News Service, “it’s the difference between acknowledging members of one’s own community and identifying a sinful proclivity.”

Despite the dismissiveness of the US bishops, Manson, a former columnist at the National Catholic Reporter, where she was one of the few openly LGBTQ journalists in the Catholic media world, somehow remains hopeful about change. “As a lesbian Catholic who has been an activist in the Catholic Church, I have seen progress,” she said. Maybe there’s a little. However, the progress Manson cites was a reference to words of support from Pope Francis for civil unions that he made in a documentary, which the Vatican was quick to explain didn’t represent any change in church doctrine.

To Manson, the fact that same-sex marriage is an issue that involves men was a factor that inspired political change. Indeed, Manson said she felt “a heaviness” of heart at the signing, along with happiness over the outcome, because Congress could get such legislation passed for marriage rights but not for abortion rights. “When men lose rights, people get upset,” she said. Not so with women.


Separating the concept of civil rights from religious doctrine is key to the kind of progress Manson hopes to see. But that’s exactly where the US Conference of Bishops refuses to bend. It’s imposing a religious view of marriage on the secular world. One on hand, today’s church is divided — like the country — between left and right. But despite the more liberal-leaning ideology that Pope Francis expresses from time to time, the conservative Catholic bishops in the United States feel empowered to resist. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and with it the right to abortion, was a victory for the bishops, who “have also staked their name on the issue of marriage,” said Manson.

With the Respect for Marriage Act, the bishops lost a political battle to the country’s changing cultural values. But within the church, the religious war over same-sex marriage goes on.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @joan_vennochi.