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Continued: Editorial: Free speech and the Catholic Church

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  • Last update: October 7, 2010 - 6:09 PM

The old advice "Don't discuss religion or politics" has been discarded since it was announced that Catholic bishops were mailing a DVD opposing same-sex marriage to 400,000 Minnesotans. Supporters have been vocal in appreciation for their church's full-throated articulation of its values. Detractors have been just as emphatic denouncing what they see as misplaced priorities and improper politicking.

Talk-show phone lines are burning up, and the controversy has generated more letters to the editor than any news since another mixture of religion, politics and gay rights, just weeks ago: Target Corp.'s donation to a group supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer.

Passions arise because this is an issue that speaks to people's core values -- sacred, secular or both. While even Emmer insists that this year's gubernatorial campaign is about fiscal, not social, issues, the possible redefinition of marriage looms as a profound danger -- or opportunity -- for many Minnesotans.

This editorial board has clearly and consistently opposed the kind of state constitutional amendment -- defining marriage as being between one man and one woman -- that Archbishop John Nienstedt is calling for. We reaffirm that opposition today.

But while we strongly differ with the church's position, our support for freedom of speech and religion remains unshaken. So we also disagree with those who have called for the Catholic Church to lose its tax-exempt status due to the political nature of its DVD. Religious organizations are given this status because of what they do in the community, not because of what's said from the pulpit. Like other denominations, the Catholic Church is the equivalent of the Red Cross in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service.

The church's tax-exempt status could be threatened if it directly endorsed candidates. But instead it's endorsing a policy outcome that's entirely consistent with its theology, in the same way Catholics have campaigned for decades to outlaw abortion.

Advocacy is nothing new to the Catholic Church or many other religious groups. Clerics have historically been at the forefront of politics in debates over (among other things) slavery, child labor, prohibition, obscenity in books and films, civil rights, Roe vs. Wade, the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq. Many of today's critics may have been quite comfortable, even pleased, in 2005 when Nienstedt's predecessor, Harry Flynn, wrote and testified publicly against Gov. Tim Pawlenty's no-new-taxes policy. "The taxes we pay," the archbishop declared, "allow us to meet our moral responsibility toward our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters in the family of God, who need our help to live in accordance with their God-given dignity."

Nienstedt may be getting more pushback than Flynn did, including from a significant number of Catholics. Attitudes about same-sex relationships are evolving. An Oct. 6 Pew poll reports that 42 percent of Americans are in favor of allowing same-sex marriage, up sharply from even last year, when the same poll said 37 percent were in favor. And on this issue the generation gap becomes a gulf, with 53 percent of those in so-called "Generation X" (born between 1965 and 1980) in favor, compared with 29 percent in the so-called "Silent Generation" (born between 1928 and 1945).

If these trends continue, future generations may see opposition to same-sex marriage the way today's Americans see segregation.

The DVD also comes amid a national conversation about the messages society sends to young people struggling with their sexuality. Too often the message is rejection and the result is tragedy, as in the devastating death of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who took his own life after being "outed" by his roommate via social media, and in the suicides of some who have been bullied at school.

The perceived insensitivity of the DVD in such a climate may cost Catholics some parishioners. Others will be inspired to see their church sailing into the headwinds of unsettling social change. As always, each individual must decide what conscience dictates.

But a free society should respect the Catholic Church's right to advocate for its principles.

  • TAX-EXEMPT STATUS

    "This is not a matter of constitutional requirement, it's a matter of legislative grace. The only reason churches and other religious organizations can have a tax-exempt status is that the federal government and the states make that tax exemption available to all charitable institutions on an equal basis. ... They cannot endorse specific candidates, but there's a lot of coming right up to that line."

    DALE CARPENTER, professor, University of Minnesota Law School

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