Massachusetts Roman Catholic bishops yesterday said the news media have recently misinterpreted the bishops' position on domestic benefits for gays, and they issued a statement saying they were opposed to those benefits and to marriage rights for gays and lesbians.
In the statement, the bishops insisted that testimony delivered by the state's four bishops at the State House last week was firmly against gay marriage, civil unions, or more limited benefits for domestic partners.
"Domestic partnership bills would recognize homosexual relationships for the purpose of extending various socioeconomic benefits. The Church opposes this recognition," said the statement, sent to state lawmakers and printed in the Boston Archdiocese newspaper under the title "Don't Believe the Headlines."
The newspaper, The Pilot, also declared in an editorial: "It has been the constant teaching of the Church that homosexual acts can never be approved. . . . Whether a casual encounter or a long-lasting relationship, those acts are intrinsically disordered."
The editorial also questioned the motivation of the news media, saying, "The media's misrepresentation of Bishop [Daniel P.] Reilly's statement seems to show either ignorance of [the] church's teachings or a media sympathy for the gay rights agenda."
Reilly, the bishop of Worcester, testified before a legislative committee Oct. 23 at a hearing on four bills that would allow gay marriage or civil unions for gays. At the hearing, Reilly said the church opposed gay marriage, but was "willing to join the discussion if the goal is to look at individual benefits and determine who should be eligible beyond spouses."
Reilly's statement was interpreted by state lawmakers and gay rights advocates as a signal of a new openness by the church to discuss extending domestic partnership rights to gay and lesbian couples. Television, newspaper, and radio outlets across the state ran stories on the testimony.
Yesterday, the Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese, told the Associated Press that the archdiocese had received numerous calls on the issue from parishioners in recent days. He also said the decision to release a statement had been made by the state's four bishops and not the Vatican.
The Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the church, also delivered letters yesterday to all 200 legislators requesting to meet and discuss gay marriage and other issues important to the church, according to legislative aides.
The Globe covered the bishops' testimony in a front-page story headlined, "Church open to same-sex benefits talks; Bishop says marriage laws cannot change." The story quoted Reilly, fielding reporters' questions about gay marriage, as saying: "There should be a way for the state to provide the benefits they have a right to like other citizens."
The day after the hearing, Representative Eugene L. O'Flaherty of Chelsea, who is cochairman of the Legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee, said he saw the bishops' testimony as a new "window of opportunity" to push through a domestic partnership bill "at the very least."
O'Flaherty, reached last night, said he would not be deterred from moving forward, regardless of the church's resounding refusal to back domestic partnerships.
"I will not throw my hands up and surrender just because the Catholic Church has sort of re-phrased its statement," O'Flaherty said. "I know there are adverse and critical positions, whether it is civil unions or domestic partnerships. But we have a serious public policy issue in front of us, and I am going to do my best to get the Catholic Church and the gay marriage lobby to create a rational bill that, at the very least, involves domestic partnerships. It is important from a health perspective to take care of those employees, and I am hopeful to advance something in this sessions."
In addition to the legislation on gay marriage and civil unions, a bill is in the Legislature that would extend domestic partner benefits to all public sector employees in the state. That bill, which was not the subject of the hearing where Reilly testified last week, is being considered by the Joint Public Service Committee.
In recent years, the Senate has passed bills to extend domestic partnership benefits, largely in the form of shared health insurance, to gay state or municipal employees in long-term partnerships. Those bills have all been killed in the House. One bill extending such benefits to Boston employees cleared the Legislature, only to be vetoed by Governor Paul Cellucci.
The state Supreme Judicial Court is considering a landmark case on the subject of gay marriage.
Recently, Senate President Robert E. Travaglini said he was in favor of creating civil unions for gay couples, as Vermont has done, but said he is against gay marriage, which would entitle gay couples to be recognized as married in every other state. Governor Mitt Romney and House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran have also come out against gay marriage.
Public sentiment toward gay marriage may be shifting in Massachusetts, as the issue is considered on Beacon Hill and in the courts. Two recent polls suggest that residents, including many Catholics, are increasingly in favor of extending full marriage rights to gays.
A Globe/WBZ-TV poll, released in April, showed that 50 percent of the state's residents supported legalizing such marriages, while 44 percent opposed it.
A poll commissioned by the Freedom to Marry Coalition and released earlier this week showed that 59 percent of the state's registered voters supported gay marriage and 35 percent opposed it. Catholics represented four in 10 of those polled, and 55 percent of the Catholics queried were found to support gay marriage, with 39 percent in opposition.
Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said she was disappointed by the church's statements yesterday, given the emotional and moral sway the church appears to have in the State House.
"I'm very disappointed," she said. "I was hoping they might be reconsidering."