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Spotlight Report

Gay-rights activists walk out of mass, cite bishops' letter

By John McElhenny, Globe Correspondent, 6/2/2003

Say-rights activists took their fight with the Catholic Church over same-sex marriage from the streets to the pews of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross yesterday, when a dozen protesters walked out in the middle of Mass, some kissing and holding hands as they left.

C. J. Doyle, the leader of a Catholic anti-defamation group, said the protest violated Catholics' freedom to worship. He said he would ask county and state law enforcement officials to prosecute the disruption as a hate crime.

The protest stemmed from a call put out by four Catholic Massachusetts bishops, reminding priests to tell their parishioners at weekend Masses about the church's stance against same-sex marriage.

Outside the cathedral in the South End yesterday, about a dozen protesters held signs assailing church leaders. Inside, Monsignor William H. Roche had just begun his homily when the protesters stood up without speaking and turned their backs to him.

Roche continued speaking, outlining the bishops' opposition to same-sex marriage, and after a few minutes the protesters left the church.

Carl Sciortino, a former altar boy at St. Agnes Church in Milford, Conn., marched out slowly down the center aisle holding the hand of his partner, Mark Murphy.

"I'm not turning my back on my church or my God. I'm turning my back on the bishops who are promoting this discrimination," said Sciortino, 24, of Somerville, a health care worker. "As a Catholic, I find it disgusting that I have to protest my own church to have equal rights under state law."

After the protesters left, Roche continued his homily without further interruption, telling the 100 or so parishioners who remained that marriage is strengthened when it is restricted to "a faithful and exclusive lifelong marriage between one man and one woman."

Roche asked parishioners to urge their elected representatives to oppose same-sex marriage, but he sounded a conciliatory note to the gay and lesbian communities who have criticized the church for its stance.

"There's no hostility to people who lead a different way of life," Roche said. "Prejudice against a person is seriously wrong. The sole purpose here is to protect the definition of one man, one woman in the holy sacrament of marriage."

After the service, Roche said he hadn't noticed the protest. The bishops' letter on same-sex marriage was read to parishioners or inserted in bulletins at churches across the area on Saturday and yesterday, from St. Theresa of Avila Parish in West Roxbury to the Holy Trinity Church in the South End and the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Roxbury.

Yesterday's protest at the cathedral was organized by, a group of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth from Boston. No arrests were reported, and protest organizers and Catholic officials said they were not aware of similar protests at other churches.

Now is an important time for gays and lesbians seeking the right to marry in Massachusetts. The state's highest court is considering whether the constitution allows same-sex couples to marry, and the Legislature is expected this year to consider changing the state constitution to define marriage as only between a man and woman.

Mark Snyder, a student at Emerson College, was among the protesters who turned their backs to the pulpit and walked out of the cathedral yesterday. Snyder, 20, kissed his friend Diego Maldonado on the cheek before leaving. He said the kiss was meant to symbolize the kiss that straight couples are allowed when they are married in a church.

"Jesus would never stand at the pulpit and say gay relationships are less equal than straight relationships," Snyder said. "Most of the Bible is about compassion and love, and that's not what was coming from the pulpit today."

Outside, some protesters said the Catholic Church, which has been hit hard over the past year by the clergy sex-abuse scandal, was entitled to its own views but shouldn't try to influence public policy.

Doyle, who is executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, said yesterday's protest was another in a series of "anti-Catholic hate crimes" over the last 15 years that included condoms being thrown at priests and mock wedding ceremonies being staged on the cathedral steps.

He said several parishioners were forced to move during the protest because their view was blocked or because they felt menaced by the protesters' presence.

"This was a premeditated assault on the First Amendment religious freedom rights of Catholics," he said, adding that he planned today to request an investigation by state Attorney General Thomas Reilly and Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley.

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