A new advocacy organization debuted this month that seeks to educate Catholics on issues such as same-sex marriage and the importance of LGBT inclusion in immigration reform.
The group, Catholics for Equality, seeks to mobilize American Catholics who believe LGBT people should have rights such as workplace protections, access to marriage and the ability to serve openly in the military.
Phil Attey, executive director of Catholics for Equality, said the organization plans to give voice to Catholics who already support rights for LGBT people.
“Catholics in the pews already understand these values, but are sometimes afraid to speak out,” Attey said. “Today, we are asking Catholics of conscience to engage in honest, loving conversations in the Catholic Church, in our families and in our community.”
Catholicism is the largest religious denomination in the United States. Around 68 million people in the country identify as Catholic, according to the National Council of Churches.
Aniello Alioto, a board member charged with the group’s grassroots campaign, said the main goal for the remainder of this year is encouraging Catholics to have discussions on LGBT issues.
Alioto said the organization’s website would be a primary tool for achieving this goal.
“We’ll be providing American Catholics with role models, facts and tips on how to have family discussions, how to challenge misinformation in the parishes and to ensure, as Catholics, their voices are heard in their community,” Alioto said.
One premise of the new group is that Catholic support for LGBT rights is among the highest among religious people in the United States.
Joseph Palacios, a gay Catholics for Equality board member and a sociology professor at Georgetown University, presented polling data showing a vast majority of Catholics support LGBT rights.
Palacios said a Gallup poll recently reported 62 percent of Catholics believe homosexuality should be accepted by society, which he said is up 16 points from 2006.
Additionally, Palacios said 69 percent of Catholics believe in civil unions for same-sex couples in committed relationships while 48 percent of all Catholics support same-sex marriage.
“In short, Catholics are the largest Christian body in the United States and members overwhelmingly support basic American freedoms and rights for their fellow LGBT family members, co-workers and neighbors,” Palacios said.
But although polls show many Catholics support rights for LGBT people, church leadership is known for opposing such rights. The Catholic Church is known for its role in promoting Proposition 8 in California, which ended same-sex marriage in the state. The church also had a lead role in the campaign for the referendum in Maine that last year abrogated the state’s marriage law.
Anne Underwood, a Maine resident and board member for the organization, said she’s taking part in Catholics for Equality in part because of the church’s role in the Maine marriage referendum.
“For many Catholics in Maine like me, 2009 was a soul-searing year,” she said. “During a six-month campaign leading up to the November vote, our liberties became vehicles for the hierarchy’s political agenda.”
On one particular Sunday, Underwood said the church required priests to preach about traditional values and its incompatibility with same-sex marriage.
“Specially printed envelopes for the political action committee Stand for Marriage appeared in our pews for our weekly collection,” she said.
Underwood said Catholics for Equality will help address these issues by providing church-goers who support LGBT rights with information.
“Telling our stories and listening to others will change the lives of our gay and lesbian relatives and friends, neighbors and colleagues,” she said. “We pro-equality Catholics are neither silent nor isolated anymore.”
The group is already working in anticipation of future fights in Maine and California to restore same-sex marriage to those states.
Palacios said Catholics for Equality has already reached out to Equality California and Equality Maine to link up grassroots efforts in those states and to connect them “into larger networks of people of faith doing outreach around critical issues in our battle states.”
In addition to the marriage issue, the organization says LGBT inclusion in comprehensive immigration reform legislation is another priority for the group.
Advocates are seeking language in immigration reform that would enable Americans to sponsor their foreign same-sex partners for residency in the United States.
However, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, strong proponents of immigration reform in general, has said it would withhold support for legislation inclusive of same-sex couples.
Palacios said Catholics for Equality has already started conversations with religious partners working on immigration reform and plans to be at the forefront of the issue.
“This is a really clear issue on inequality that the bishops of following,” he said. “That they would hold up comprehensive immigration reform over this is incomprehensible.”
Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said his organization welcomes Catholics for Equality as part of the faith coalition working for LGBT-inclusive immigration reform legislation.
“We have long known that Catholic parishioners are far more welcoming and affirming than groups like the Conference of Catholic Bishops would have us believe,” Ralls said.
Ralls said support from Catholics for Equality underscores that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is a group of about 425 bishops who have been “disproportionately loud and “out of step with their more than 68 million congregants.”