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Father John Whitney, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Seattle. Photo courtesy St. Joseph Parish.

Father John Whitney, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Seattle. Photo courtesy St. Joseph Parish.


Washington Catholics Take On Referendum 74

Liz Jones

This fall, people in Washington state will likely vote on a referendum to repeal same–sex marriage. Backers of Referendum 74 plan to turn in signatures Tuesday to put the issue on the ballot.

One of the biggest proponents of the repeal is the Catholic archdiocese of Seattle. It wants all of its parishes to actively campaign against same–sex marriage. But some Catholics are feeling caught in the middle as KUOW's Liz Jones reports.


St. Mark Catholic Church in Shoreline has been like a second home for Clare Martin all her life — all 16 years of it. But lately, she's pulled away.

Martin: "I don't want to be a part of a church that's going to discriminate against gay people."

Recently she's had doubts about going through with her confirmation ceremony. That's a major event for Catholics.

Martin: "Confirmation is basically saying 'I do want to be a Catholic' and committing yourself to that."

By backing out of confirmation, she hoped to make a statement against what's been going on outside her church for the past several weeks.

After recent masses, some parishioners have set up a small tent outside the church. The pastor gave them the OK to collect signatures for Referendum 74, which seeks to overturn the state's same–sex marriage law.

Organizer: "Need your signature ma'am on the last line. You gotta sign it. Thank you! Have a great day!"

The organizers say hundreds of people here have signed the petitions.

Organizer: "Well, there were a lot. There were a lot of people."

Bruce Carr is one of the organizers.

Carr: "I haven't actually really ever felt the need to become politically active until the state or federal government started to push more and more into my faith. And if they want to do that, then we'll push back."

Carr says he's here to defend the Catholic tradition of marriage, as between a man and a woman.

But Clare Martin interprets her Catholic teaching differently.

She thinks Jesus would support marriage equality.

Martin: "Because he said, 'Do unto others as they would do unto you.' And I don't think any of the people signing the petitions would want to be denied the right to marry."

Martin thinks her congregation is divided on this issue. But many are reluctant to speak up. Speaking up is something Martin seems to enjoy. Her family teases her about it.

Martin: "They call me the letter writer because I like to write letters to people whenever I, like, I think something's wrong."

So, she wrote to Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain about her concerns. That was in April. Sartain had just asked all parishes in Western Washington to include his letter in the church bulletin in support of Referendum 74. So, when she wrote to him —

Martin: "And he was nice. He sent a response back about how the Catholic Church supports gay people. They don't want them to be discriminated against. But he sent me this article about how, like, marriage is just between a man and woman. I didn't read it because I knew it wouldn't change my opinion."

But Martin did eventually change her mind about something else: her confirmation. She says she put her politics aside and is now an officially confirmed Catholic.

Archbishop Sartain urged all parishes in Western Washington to host the petitions. A spokesperson says the vast majority did.

Father Jim Northrop is pastor at St. Brendan Catholic Church in Bothell. His says his pastoral council was divided about the petitions. He spent a couple weeks on the fence. He admits this issue pushed him out of his comfort zone.

Northrop: "I usually always try to preach about faith and I stay away from politics because, you know, it's very divisive. And I want people to be educated in their faith."

Ultimately, he decided to allow the petitions because he thinks the issue should go to a public vote. Then he had to tell his congregation.

Northrop: "I was nervous, I was. I mean, I prayed long and hard about it, I didn't want it to come off as, you know, being discriminatory."

Jones: "Do you feel like your parish could've gone almost either way on it?"

Northrop: "Yeah, I expected more negative reaction actually. I just assumed based on the one pastor down the street, in Kirkland, that I was going to get something similar to that, but I haven't yet."

Northrop says only a few people complained. That's out of the 2,000 or so families who go there.

Sound: School kids playing.

In Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood at St. Joseph's, next to the parish school and playground, Father John Whitney has also heard complaints from his parishioners, but their criticisms are aimed at Archbishop Sartain and his position against gay marriage. Whitney says he encouraged people to put their thoughts in writing.

Whitney: "I think we've sent a lot of letters down to the archbishop's office. I think we've given him quite a bit to read [laughs]."

Whitney's church opted out of the petition drive, along with a dozen or so other parishes in Western Washington.

Whitney says he's received hundreds of emails and letters in support of his decision. He's got a few complaints, too, mainly from people outside his parish.

Whitney: "What's been going on in the church recently has at least opened the eyes and the hearts of many Catholics, sometimes painfully. It's also mobilized a lot of people to step up and to want to be heard."

Jones: "Had you had any people reacting more with hurt or with anger, even that they wanted to distance themselves from the Catholic Church?"

Whitney: "There's been hurt. Some people were hurt just by the letter itself. The fact that letter came out from the archbishop. There's been a number of people I'm sure who've left the church — sometimes they tell me and sometimes they don't."

He has heard an earful about the Annual Catholic Appeal. It's kind of like a pledge drive for the Seattle Archdiocese and it's underway now. The appeal is for all Catholics in Western Washington to make a special contribution.

Whitney says several of his parishioners are opting out or giving to other causes. Or, Whitney says, many are mailing in their checks along with a little something extra — a personal note of protest tucked inside the envelope. I'm Liz Jones, KUOW News.

[Ed.: After broadcast, KUOW news editors learned that the teenager in this story was a recent trainee in a KUOW youth media program, RadioActive. (06/14/2012)]

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