PORTLAND — Maine's Catholic church will not actively campaign against this fall's expected statewide referendum seeking to legalize same-sex marriage, but rather will focus on teaching parishioners about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, the head of the Catholic diocese said.
Bishop Richard Malone on Friday unveiled a 24-page "pastoral letter" he wrote explaining the church's position on marriage. The document will be discussed at Catholic churches and schools, through the diocese's magazine and website, and on radio stations devoted to Catholic issues.
The letter will be the heart of the church's response to gay marriage supporters, Malone said. But the diocese won't be actively involved in or contributing money to any campaigns against a referendum question expected to appear on the November ballot.
The Catholic diocese's role is in contrast to 2009, when the Legislature legalized same-sex marriage and voters later overturned the law. That year, the church took up special collections during services and asked for contributions from other dioceses to help fund the campaign against gay marriage. A top church official took a leave of absence from the diocese to serve as campaign chairman for a group that led the fight against legalizing gay marriage.
"Teaching and education are going to be the main thrust of our approach to this challenge this time around," Malone said.
David Farmer, spokesman for the Dirigo Family PAC in support of this year's gay marriage initiative, said he expects other groups to campaign against the referendum.
"We still expect there will be well-funded and well-organized opposition to the question this year," Farmer said.
State officials last week verified that gay marriage advocates had turned in enough valid signatures to place the issue on the ballot. The question first goes to the Legislature and will go to voters if lawmakers, as expected, don't approve the proposal themselves.
The Catholic diocese in Maine launched an initiative six years ago to strengthen the institution of marriage and the church's view that it is the foundation of family and society, Malone said. His pastoral letter, which he called a "teaching document," is a continuation of the church's teachings on marriage that have been ongoing for 2,000 years and was not written in response to the gay marriage referendum, he said.
The document will be targeted toward the state's estimated 185,000 Catholics, not the state's electorate as a whole.
"One of the reasons for the pastoral letter is we discovered during the 2009 referendum that a number of our Catholic brothers and sisters here in Maine really needed a deeper understanding of the nature of marriage," Malone said. "Our effort this time is going to be squarely solidly educational."
Farmer said while the Catholic church has its view of marriage, other denominations and faiths support legalizing gay marriage. The proposed law would protect clergy from being mandated to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies if they don't want to, he said.