In a 16-page statement sent to parishes throughout the state, the bishops say a same-sex marriage law would lead to violations of First Amendment rights.
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The statement is signed by Edwin F. O'Brien, the former archbishop of Baltimore who has been given a new assignment in Rome; Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington; and W. Francis Malooly, bishop of Wilmington, Del.
Kathy Dempsey, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Catholic Conference, said the statement — crafted with support from national Catholic leaders — has been in the works for a year. It is being distributed in Maryland now, she said, partly in anticipation of the annual General Assembly session that begins in January.
Gov. Martin O'Malley has pledged to lead the charge for a law to recognize same-sex marriage in the state, saying he would include the effort among his priorities during the 2012 session.
Supporters have predicted the Democratic governor's full backing could give the measure the push needed for passage. A same-sex marriage bill cleared the state Senate this year, but was pulled from the floor of the House of Delegates after vote-counters determined they were a few delegates shy of a majority.
In their statement, the bishops acknowledged that no legislation has been proposed that would force a priest to marry a same-sex couple, but said other business owners could be forced to supply materials for such a union or risk accusations of discrimination. Employers could also be forced to honor same-sex marriages through health care laws, they said.
If the Maryland proposal had passed this year, "Religious business owners like florists, bakers, musicians, or photographers would not have been able to decline to participate in a same-sex marriage ceremony," the statement says.
That argument is unreasonable, said Lisa Polyak, acting chairwoman of the board of directors of Equality Maryland, which has pushed for passage of the marriage law. Polyak stressed that no religious leader would be forced to perform a ceremony that violated his or her beliefs, and said prohibiting discrimination by businesses such as photographers is not tantamount to violating religious freedom.
"We support religious freedom. Religious freedom would not be curtailed if the Maryland legislature finally allowed same-sex couples to be married," she said.
The bishops express concern about other political actions nationally, calling on Catholics to support anti-abortion pregnancy resource centers when they are challenged by local lawmakers and to speak out about provisions of the federal health care reform law that they say requires coverage of birth control and "abortion-inducing" drugs.
Casting such legislation as a violation of religious freedom is not necessarily a new strategy. But Catholic University President John Garvey, who was chairman of a commission that helped to draft the statement, said the issue of religious freedom is "at a crossroads" in America.
"It's a really good and important thing the bishops have done," he said. "Increasingly, religious freedom is losing in other clashes with social issues. It's important that we pay attention to that."