Saying they are concerned that a walkout by legislators could scuttle a vote on a bill to ban same-sex marriage, the four Roman Catholic bishops of Massachusetts are exhorting the state's 3 million Catholics to demand action.
The bishops, including Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, are also urging Catholics to go to the State House Nov. 9, the date the vote is scheduled, to voice their support for restricting marriage to heterosexual couples. The letter asks Catholics to "pray for success on this critical vote."
But religious supporters of same-sex marriage are fighting back. They have printed thousands of copies of a brochure titled, "Why We Don't Vote on Civil Rights," for distribution in churches and synagogues. They are also preparing to publish newspaper ads signed by a group of lay Catholics declaring that O'Malley doesn't speak for them on the issue of marriage.
Legislative observers say they are not sure what to expect Nov. 9, when legislators meeting in Constitutional Convention consider placing the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the 2008 ballot.
Supporters of the amendment need votes from 25 percent of the Legislature in two successive sessions to put the question before voters; some gay-marriage backers have discussed walking out of the convention to derail the amendment.
Same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts since 2004, and an estimated 8,000 same-sex couples have married during that time.
Opponents of same-sex marriage then gathered 170,000 signatures in support of the amendment to define marriage as "the union of one man and one woman."
The issue has divided the religious community. In addition to the Catholic Church, many evangelical churches and black churches have rallied to overturn same-sex marriage. The campaign is being chaired by the Rev. Roberto S. Miranda, senior pastor of Congregación León de Juda, a large, predominantly Hispanic Baptist church in Boston.
The bishops' letter was approved by Bishop George W. Coleman of Fall River, Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell of Springfield, and Bishop Robert J. McManus of Worcester, as well as O'Malley. The letter, which was available in Spanish and Portuguese as well as in English, is tailored to each parish.
The letter gives the name, e-mail address, and phone numbers of the lawmaker who represents the address at which the parish is headquartered; priests were asked to include the letter in their parish bulletins last weekend and next.
It is not certain what impact the bishops' call will have on Massachusetts Catholics, the majority of whom do not regularly attend Mass. A poll by The Boston Globe of Massachusetts adults, taken last year, found no difference in attitudes between Catholics and Protestants toward same-sex marriage. Although Catholics make up a majority of the Legislature and most of the elected officials in the state, the state's public policies are frequently at odds with church teachings. The Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry says it has the signatures of more than 3,000 Catholics who support same-sex marriage.
Support for same-sex marriage has come from the Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish movements, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and others. On Saturday, delegates to the convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts voted overwhelmingly to urge the Legislature to defeat the ballot initiative. As in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, there are adherents of the Protestant and Jewish groups who do not agree with their denominational leaders.
"The archdiocese and the religious right who are trying to ban marriage equality are doing it from a religious perspective, and they're trying to impose their beliefs on the rest of us, who don't share them," said Rabbi Devon A. Lerner, executive director of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry.
"It's discriminatory against a minority, and it's religious discrimination," Lerner said.
Michael Paulson can be reached at email@example.com.