Developments in the Culture War

The status of anti-family and anti-life legislation in California and other states

California’s first permanent settlements were established by Catholic missionaries, and today nearly a third of the state is Catholic, but an increasing number of its laws are hostile to families and opposed to Catholic morality, according to Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez and his brother bishops in California. The archbishop made national news in July when, in his archdiocesan newspaper, The Tidings, he specifically pointed to two such state laws. The first, which was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, requires the state’s history textbooks to stress the contributions of homosexuals. The other permits children to have vaccinations for sexually transmitted diseases without informing their parents.

Archbishop Gomez commented, “There was a time, not too long ago, when American society encouraged family values and tried to strengthen the bonds of parents and children. Recent events in our state and nation remind us that’s not always the case anymore.”

While Catholic schools are free not to use history textbooks used by public schools, they often use the books so as to prepare their students for material used on standardized state tests. Lobbyists for the California Catholic Conference argued that it is not the legislators’ job to decide what material is to be included in history textbooks, and furthermore, that texts should focus on the accomplishments of historic figures, not their association with a particular group. 

“But on this and many other issues we’re not getting a receptive ear,” complained Carol Hogan, the Conference’s director of communications. “Our California legislature is dominated by liberals who have bought into the gay agenda.”

Support for the gay agenda led (at least nominally Catholic) former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign a 2009 law setting aside a day to commemorate Harvey Milk, a homosexual San Francisco politician who was murdered in 1978. Milk is one of only two such Californians to receive the honor. (While Milk’s time in public office was short—11 months—he was long involved in the gay subculture. He had a series of young male lovers; one, Jack Galen McKinley, was only 16 when their relationship began. Milk, at the time, was 33.)

Equality California (a gay-rights lobbying group) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights also succeeded this year in getting both houses of the California legislature to pass by large margins AB 1349, a measure which seeks to redefine fatherhood in a way that favors same-sex couples caring for children. AB 1349 allows the unmarried mother of a child to reject a biological father’s voluntary acknowledgement of paternity and allow a court to award paternity rights to an ex-lesbian partner. California’s Catholic bishops opposed the measure.

Bill May, chairman of the lay apostolate Catholics for the Common Good, lamented that AB 1349 was an attempt to “redefine fatherhood for children born to unmarried mothers.” He said it “undermines the rights of fathers and the internationally recognized right of every child to know and, as far as possible, be cared for by his or her biological mother and father.”

Regarding STD vaccinations, Carol Hogan says the bishops believe that allowing children to get them without parental consent violates parents’ rights. But many legislators instead “believe that it’s a jungle out there, families are dysfunctional, and it’s up to them to step up and protect children.”

Many of the same legislators believe that protecting children justifies the state policy of allowing minors to obtain birth control and have abortions without parental consent. The STD vaccination bill has stalled in the legislature (as of this writing), but not due to moral concerns. Cash-strapped California is trying to figure how it can afford to fund the vaccinations, which could cost up to $500 per child.

Hogan said that California legislation was increasingly being decided on the “far-out fringes,” with outcomes eventually decided in the courts. The state legislature, for example, is increasingly allowing individuals to decide for themselves what their gender is (rather than relying on biology to make that determination). On May 16, the California state assembly passed AB 887, which would allow cross-dressing employees to wear whatever they want to work, despite workplace dress codes. The bill is currently under consideration by the state Senate.

When the California Catholic Conference approaches legislators to present the bishops’ viewpoint, it is given a respectful hearing, but even Catholic legislators “feel free to disagree,” explains Hogan. Many California Catholics are poorly catechized, she continued, and unlike elsewhere in the country, “wearing a Roman collar to lobby in the capital doesn’t offer an advantage.”

Additionally, the state government is dominated by Democrats, none of whom are pro-life and many of whom are hostile to other Church teachings, including the sanctity of marriage. The bishops celebrated a major victory with the passage of Proposition 8 in 2008, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. The state courts have decided the measure is constitutional, but it could eventually be overturned in the federal courts.

Nonetheless, Oakland Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, was encouraged: “[Proposition 8’s passage] tells me that there is something in people’s hearts that makes them realize that supporting marriage is not discriminating against anyone, it’s not something that’s hateful, and it’s not something that’s bigoted,” he said. “Marriage is something that benefits everyone in society, whether you’re married or not.”

Hogan urged Catholics to be informed about legislative initiatives; the California Catholic Conference offers free email updates on issues of importance to the bishops at its website,


In Illinois, the Department of Children and Family Services has told the state’s Catholic Charities agencies that, based on the recently passed Religious Freedom and Civil Union Act, it would be removing the nearly 2,000 foster children under the agencies’ care, ending a 30-year foster care partnership between the state and Catholic Charities. Catholic Charities refuses to place children in homes with same-sex or unmarried opposite-sex couples, leading the state to conclude that Catholic Charities is in violation of the law.

On July 11, an Illinois judge granted a preliminary injunction in favor of Catholic Charities maintaining the status quo; the court battles over the case continue.

Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, commented, “The Catholic Charities/foster care issue is our chief concern. We’re looking beyond this particular case to see if they change the definition of the word ‘spouse’ to include those in same-sex relationships. We could be a court case away from having same-sex marriage.”

Gilligan describes Illinois as “trending liberal,” a “purple state heading blue.” Hence, the Catholic Conference is unsuccessful in securing passage of many of its initiatives, such as one requiring that women seeking abortions be shown ultrasound images of their babies before aborting them. Gilligan is also concerned that the state may soon adopt a comprehensive sex-education curriculum that forbids the teaching of abstinence. While such measures would not directly affect Catholic schools, “what is taught in public schools affects society as a whole.”

When lobbying on behalf of the bishops, Gilligan is often disappointed with lawmakers’ lack of common sense and courage to stand up for their convictions. He said, “You don’t have to be religious to see that adoptive children do best when placed with a loving mom and dad. You don’t have to be religious to see that encouraging teens to abstain from sex until marriage would alleviate many of our social problems. I think people will look back at our time and ask, ‘What were they thinking?’”

While Gilligan still sees respect for the Church among legislators, there is less and less receptivity for the Church’s message, he says. “The changing attitudes of society are affecting our elected officials,” he explained. “And even our Catholic elected officials often demonstrate that they have little knowledge of their faith.”

Gilligan encourages Catholics to shed their apathy and become more aware of issues affecting society. Too many people won’t become involved in an important issue because they think it won’t affect them, he said. Concerned citizens calling public officials’ offices about issues can make a significant impact.


Catholic leaders had twin disappointments on the East Coast in June: the adoption of civil unions in Rhode Island and same-sex marriage in New York.

Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, an outspoken defender of traditional marriage, released a statement on June 30 that declared: “I am deeply disappointed that Rhode Island will establish civil unions in our state. The concept of civil unions is a social experiment that promotes an immoral lifestyle, is a mockery of the institution of marriage as designed by God, undermines the well-being of our families, and poses a threat to religious liberty.”

Father Bernard Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, noted that the Conference’s disappointment was tempered somewhat in that the state did not adopt same-sex marriage. Additionally, the civil union legislation had a strong religious exemption which said that churches do not have to accept civil unions as valid. 

The battle in Rhode Island over same-sex marriage will continue, Father Healey cautioned, because supporters are “relentless” and a state or federal court could “impose same-sex marriage by judicial fiat.” Neither same-sex marriage opponents nor advocates were pleased by civil-union legislation, he noted: “It is a compromise that pleased nobody but the politicians.”

Father Healey lamented that the civil-union legislation did not permit conscience protection for individuals. A wedding planner or photographer, for example, could be sued for not offering services for a civil-union ceremony. (He believes that the First Amendment will protect Catholic priests from lawsuits when they refuse to perform same-sex marriages, however.)

Father Healey also noted that the Catholic Conference was closely following other issues, including measures that could provide taxpayer funds for abortions and efforts to tax non-profit institutions. The election of Tea Party conservatives in the state has not always been of assistance to advancing the Catholic viewpoint, he added: “Some are fiscal conservatives, but social libertarians. They’re not opposed same-sex marriage or abortion, except when they have to pay for it.”

Father Healey encouraged Catholics to be faithful citizens, study the Church’s teachings on public policy issues, and hold public officials accountable for their actions: “We all need to be concerned with the common good.”

On June 24, New York’s bishops issued a statement declaring they were “deeply disappointed and troubled” by that state’s legalization of same-sex marriage.

Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference, said, “We worked hard to defeat it, telling our legislators that a re-definition of marriage was not the way to address society’s problems. They responded by blowing up the whole issue.”

Poust attributes the defeat to millions of dollars of funding from same-sex marriage supporters, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City. The state’s new politically popular (and nominally Catholic) governor, Andrew Cuomo, “arm-twisted” on the issue, Poust says, and several key legislators switched their votes to allow its passage. Poust pointed out two such Republican state senators, Mark Grisanti of Buffalo and Roy McDonald of Troy, both Catholics. (The GOP held a 32-30 majority in the senate, and could have defeated the measure.) Poust commented, “Mark Grisanti had said he’d vote against same-sex marriage, and even spoke about his faith on the floor of the Senate. When he switched his vote, it was particularly offensive.”

The issue also drew the attention and support of many celebrities. Singer Lady Gaga, for example, urged attendees at a Buffalo concert earlier this year to call a then-wavering Senator Grisanti to demand he support same-sex marriage.

Other areas of concern for the Catholic Conference include the Reproductive Health Act, which would declare abortion an unassailable right in the state of New York. The measure could be taken up in the next legislative session. As well as being pro-homosexual marriage, Cuomo is a staunch supporter of legalized abortion. Poust concluded, “We’re off to a rocky start with Governor Cuomo.”


Attempts to legalize physician-assisted suicide in states such as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont recently prompted the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to release a policy statement on the issue, titled “To Live Each Day with Dignity.” In the document, the bishops ask the public “to stand for the dignity of people with serious illnesses and disabilities, and promote life-affirming solutions for their problems and hardships” rather than providing such individuals with the means to kill themselves. It was the first time the USCCB collectively addressed the issue, although individual bishops have issued statements on the subject.

Voters legalized assisted suicide in Oregon and Washington; the Montana Supreme Court effectively legalized it in 2009. Vermont will be next, if newly elected Democrat Governor Peter Shumlin has his way. He assured voters, “As governor, I will strongly champion death with dignity legislation.” He had sponsored such bills previously while a legislator.

This year, legislation was introduced in both Vermont’s House and Senate to legalize assisted suicide, but further consideration has been delayed until the next legislative session, which begins in January 2012. The Diocese of Burlington, which encompasses the entire state, has not been involved with direct lobbying of legislators, but has taken steps to explain to its parishioners the dangers legalizing assisted suicide. Bishop of Burlington Salvatore Matano asked his fellow citizens of Vermont, “Do we as a people wish to be identified as a Death State, where life is terminated at its beginning and at any stage thereafter?”

If the state of Vermont legalizes assisted suicide, it will be the first time a state legislature has done so, remarked Mary Hahn Beerworth, a Catholic and executive director of Vermont Right to Life. (Although not affiliated with the organization, the Diocese of Burlington uses the Vermont Right to Life as a resource for information on life issues.) 

Beerworth said Vermont is “the most liberal state in the country,” and that moral arguments by people of faith to legislators about assisted suicide will have little effect. Instead, some of the more effective lobbying has been done by groups representing people with disabilities. Once assisted suicide becomes legal, Beerworth argues, the disabled may be pressured to commit suicide due to the amount of medical care they use or the additional burdens they place on their families and community.

Beerworth believes that the citizens of Vermont are leaning toward accepting legalized assisted suicide, and that a vote of the legislature on the issue could go either way. She concluded, “People who support the right to life should be very, very, very concerned about what happens with assisted suicide in Vermont. If it gains a foothold here, we could see it rapidly spread to other states in the Northeast.”

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About Jim Graves 230 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.