What Rights for Same-Sex Couples Does the Church Support?

Much of my attention this week has been focused on the result of the referendum in Maine which repealed that state’s recognition of same-sex marriage. In his stated opposition, Portland’s Catholic Bishop Richard Malone also spoke of  certain benefits which he thinks same-sex couples should have. While I am not aware that he has offered a complete list of the types of civil benefits he would support, a legitimate question for the bishop would be to articulate which of marriage’s approximately 1,400 civil rights he thinks same-sex couples should have access to. Specifically, what rights constitute that package of “basic rights” that USCCB president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz says even gay people are entitled to?

The answer to this question is important. In trying to determine the line that indicates where the Church’s support and opposition begin and end, it’s been suggested by many that perhaps advocates of same-sex marriage should not use the term “marriage.” Rather, they should simply seek civilly recognized “domestic partnerships” that have all the same rights as civil marriage, but are just not called “marriages.” Would Bishop Malone (whose mantra was, “Marriage matters!”) have been supportive of the legislation if the relationships of same-sex couples were not called “marriages”? While this may seem like a reasonable alternative, actions by bishops on the other side of the country suggest that even this would not be acceptable.

On the same day that Maine voters rejected same-sex marriage, voters in Washington state voted the other way. They upheld a legislative expansion of “domestic partnership” rights to equate these rights with all those afforded married couples. Despite the change in terminology and the avoidance of the term “marriage,” even this wasn’t acceptable to Washington’s Catholic bishops. They opposed R-71 (as the referendum was called, and informally called “the ‘Everything but Marriage’ law”) not for what it would do now, but for what it might lead to at some point down the road.

So … what rights for same-sex couples does the Church support? How many of those 1,400 marriage rights would Bishop Malone or other bishops support?  For all the effort and energy that went into opposing Question 1 in Maine and Referendum 71 in Washington, one would think the bishops could find time to say so.

One positive note about the bishops of Washington:  although they stated their own opposition to R-71, they at least expressed this opposition while respecting the consciences of Washington Catholics, stating: “The bishops of Washington State urge all Catholics to vote after informing their consciences on these issues through prayer, Scripture reading and study.”

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