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Catholics organize to support traditional marriage

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“In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue; participation in the political process is a moral obligation,” the U.S. Bishops said in their 2005 statement, “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility.”

The bishops of Massachusetts, together with Catholic Citizenship, a non-partisan organization which promotes public policy education and lay Catholic involvement in the political process, are working to assist Massachusetts voters in fulfilling that obligation.

The organization is backed by the bishops of Massachusetts and is working in conjunction with the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.

“We are in the process of trying to develop a mechanism whereby relevant information can be spread in a timely manner,” said Larry Cirignano, executive director of Catholic Citizenship. In order to accomplish this goal, Cirignano is looking for one volunteer per parish whose job it will be to receive information on issues important to Catholics for inclusion in parish bulletins.

The first test of this effort to organize Catholics will come this month, as the Bay State once again confronts the issue of same-sex marriage. With the 2005 Constitutional Convention only one week away, state lawmakers will once again be asked to weigh in on the same-sex marriage debate.

This week, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly is expected to have ruled on a ballot initiative which would ban future same-sex marriages, but leave the treatment of existing same-sex marriages up to the courts and legislators.  This initiative was filed in June by the Coalition for Marriage and Family.

Unlike the Travaglini-Lees amendment passed during the 2004 Constitutional Convention — which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman but at the same time enshrines civil unions in the state constitution— the ballot initiative simply reads, “When recognizing marriages entered into after the adoption of this amendment by the people, the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall define marriage only as the union of one man and one woman.”

If the attorney general certifies the ballot initiative, supporters of traditional marriage will have roughly two months to come up with the 65,825 signatures needed to “give the people the right to vote on marriage” in 2008, said Cirignano.

According to Cirignano, regardless of the outcome, an appeal is expected.

“Either way, we still will need to gather signatures,” he added.

In order to reach the Catholic community, Catholic Citizenship has designed a process that will be implemented in parishes over the next three weeks.

This week church bulletins will include a pamphlet entitled “The New Marriage Amendment: An Introduction to Catholics.”

The following week, the parish bulletins are expected to contain a statement issued by the four Massachusetts bishops, in which they “will encourage all Catholics to participate in the signature drive for the new initiative petition,” Cirignano said.

Once the initiative petition has been given to Catholic Citizenship, which Cirignano expects will be Sept. 21, copies will be included in the four diocesan newspapers of Massachusetts and will be sent home with every Catholic school student. Copies will also be made available in Spanish and Portuguese to those parishes with large ethnic populations.  The following Sunday, “Protect Marriage Sunday,” as it is being referred to by the Coalition for Marriage and Family, parishioners will be asked to sign the petitions at the beginning of every Mass.

“I have no doubt that we should, in that one weekend, be able to gather our targeted goal of 100,000 signatures,” Cirignano stated. “This petition drive is not just about being pro- and against marriage.  It just gives the people the right to vote on marriage.”

“The key is for people to step up,” he added, noting that volunteers are needed at every Mass to hand out pens and petitions, collect the signed petitions and fax the number of signed petitions back to Catholic Citizenship the evening of Sept. 25. Arrangements will also have to be made to drop off the signed petitions at designated drop-off points throughout the state.

In order to sign the ballot initiative petition, a person must be a registered voter and must include their home address. 

Because one invalid signature on a petition sheet would invalidate all other signatures on that form, organizers will ask that each signatory use their own petition sheet.

Once the signed petitions have been gathered, each signature will be verified and certified by individual town clerk’s offices, Cirignano explained. The signed petitions will then be delivered to the office of Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who will tally the number of certified signed petitions.

If at least 65,825 signatures are obtained before the Nov. 23 deadline, the ballot initiative will go before the State House and Senate. For two consecutive constitutional conventions, 25 percent of state lawmakers must approve the amendment before it could be put on the ballot. 

Cirignano noted the difference between this effort and the Marriage Affirmation and Protection Act (MA&PA) which was defeated in the 2004 constitutional convention. As a legislator initiated amendment, MA&PA needed to garner support from a majority of state lawmakers — at least 101. However, a citizen-initiated petition such as this only requires the support of 25 percent of the Legislature. In addition, the wording of a citizens-initiated petition cannot be changed without the approval of 75 percent of the legislators.

Cirignano added that, even if this effort is successful, the earliest the marriage amendment could be put on the ballot is November, 2008.  

Although the marriage debate is currently the top priority of Catholic Citizenship, Cirignano hopes that the grassroots activism will not be confined to this debate alone.

“Ideally we would like someone from each parish to be the link between that parish and our organization,” he said. As the liaison, the person would be asked to pass information from Catholic Citizenship on current issues to their pastor for inclusion in their church bulletin.

“Many times, the information just doesn’t translate from bishop to pew,” he explained. “Catholic Citizenship is just trying to get the information to reach the person sitting in the pew.”

“We don’t want to burden the priests with more work,” he continued. “This should be a lay movement.”

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