Church officials said the money isn't coming from collection plates.
Catholic parishes and affiliated groups around the country are pouring money into Minnesota's fight to pass a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
From the $3,000 sent by Catholics in Baton Rouge, La., to the $500 from the Diocese of Austin, Texas, more than two dozen dioceses and archdioceses have dug deep for the local effort. The largest contributions came from closer to home, with the dioceses of Crookston, St. Cloud and Winona putting up $50,000 apiece.
The Knights of Columbus, the nation's largest Catholic fraternal organization, has contributed more than $130,000 to Minnesota's effort.
The money is all flowing to the Minnesota Catholic Conference Marriage Defense Fund, a political organization that has contributed more than half of the $1.2 million raised by the pro-amendment Minnesota for Marriage. Reports filed recently with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board detail the contributions to Minnesota from across the country.
The marriage amendment has emerged as the most expensive and divisive fight of the campaign season. Minnesotans United for All Families, the group opposing the amendment, raised $6.7 million between January and the end of September.
Reports show that Catholic groups and the National Organization for Marriage have contributed more than $2.4 million to marriage-related fights in Minnesota, Maryland, Maine and Washington state next month.
John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron, Ohio, who studies politics and religion, said Catholic Church leadership has played a stronger role in Minnesota than other states where marriage-related measures are on the ballot. He attributed that to the forceful advocacy of Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt, who has spoken out strongly on the issue for years.
"Roman Catholics who oppose same-sex marriage have been a very important part of the efforts to pass marriage amendments," Green said. "The Roman Catholic church leadership has often played a role in supporting those efforts and in speaking out in favor of traditional marriage."
Locally, Catholic Church leaders say defending traditional marriage is precisely what they should be doing, whether it is in the pews or the voting booth.
"The defense of marriage is profoundly a social justice issue because it helps to secure the right of children to be known and loved by both their mother and father," said Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference and treasurer of its political-action organization working to pass the measure. "What the Church is spending on the marriage amendment is actually a small fraction of what it spends on charitable programs, education and other outreach programs."
Joel Hennessy, a spokesman for the Winona Diocese, said its $50,000 contribution "was nothing mandated or nothing that was specifically requested."
It also did not, he stressed, come out of parishioners' donations.
"It was an amount our bishop brought to us," he said. "Similar to the [Twin Cities] archdiocese, we did not use any operating funds or any parish assessments or any kind of money that was collected from the people of the dioceses. It came directly from investment income."
Adkins said that as church leaders have collected money, they have been careful to ensure that money for the marriage fight did not come from the collection plate of unsuspecting parishioners. He complained that the Human Rights Campaign, which brought the donations in all four states to light on Thursday, was attempting to mislead the public about the church's contributions.
"Other than voluntary collections taken up in a few parishes and in two dioceses, no collection plate money, parish assessments or annual appeal funds have been used to promote the passage of the marriage amendment," Adkins said.
Chris Codden, a spokeswoman for the St. Cloud Diocese, said that in April and May parishes were asked to take up a second collection during mass specifically for donations that would be given to the Minnesota Catholic Conference's campaign. The special collection raised $50,000.
"It did not come out of our budget, it did not come out of any of our financial reserves or any portion of our budget," Codden said. "The amount we gave strictly came from the parishioners themselves, knowing where it was going to."
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in releasing its report: "The Catholic Church hierarchy has positioned itself as the leading religious organization funding discrimination against [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people. ... "Perhaps most disturbing is the number of local parishes redirecting the hard-earned dollars of its members in the name of discrimintion."
Chuck Darrell, spokesman for Minnesota for Marriage, the lead group pushing the measure, blasted the criticism by the Human Rights Campaign. He said that group, along with the organization Freedom to Marry, contributed dramatically more than the Catholic Church and its affiliates this campaign season.
"They are vastly outspending our side and they now have the gall to complain about it?" asked Darrell. "It's embarrassing to see such whining."
The Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Marry and their affiliate groups have contributed more than $1.4 million to Minnesotans United for All Families, the group opposing the amendment.
Staff writer Rose French contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044