There is a battle brewing between the extremely politically powerful Catholic Church in Illinois and the expansion of equal civil rights in the state. The already tenuous relationship between the church and the state may soon see its greatest test yet as Illinois legislators and civil rights organizations start meeting to strategize on moving from civil unions to full marriage equality for same-sex couples as soon as 2013.
That strategy of moving forward may well involve running head first into the Catholic Hierarchy in Illinois. In September, the Catholic Conference of Illinois announced the formation of a multi-million "Defense of Marriage" department whose sole purpose is to fight any future attempts to legalize same-sex marriage in the state. The stated goal of the department is to protect the "stature of the nuclear family – which provides love, stability and confidence to children, as well as organization to society."
The Defense of Marriage department has already started throwing out incendiary (and scientifically unfounded) claims about the "dangers" of marriage equality, saying: "The effects (of same-sex marriage) are evident in the performance of children in school, in truancy and crime rates, and in an ailing culture that too often values feeling good over self-giving, and individuality over the common good."
The Catholic Church's hostility has indeed been ratcheting up around equal rights for LGBT people in the state. We've seen the drawn out legal battle between Catholic Charities and the state of Illinois over the organization's state-funded adoption and foster care contracts, and their refusal to grant those services to same-sex couples in civil unions, which ended in a loss for the church. This has led to a growing tension between the church hierarchy and advancing civil rights. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago recently compared the city's Gay Pride Parade to the Ku Klux Klan, sparking outrage, protests, and an eventual half-apology from the Cardinal. Even Pope Benedict himself has continued the attacks on marriage equality, saying this week that gay marriage was a threat to the traditional family that undermined "the future of humanity itself."
With well-organized and well-funded opposition like this, pushing for legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry will be difficult. Yet this aggressive attack on LGBT people and their families reflect mainly the Catholic Church's hierarchy, not the members of the church itself. A recent study from the Public Religion Research Institute shows the vast majority of Catholics are supportive of LGBT people, including marriage equality, despite opposition from Roman Catholic hierarchy.
In the long run, the leaders of Catholic Church's opposition to basic equality for LGBT people will only hurt their own organization and weaken their influence in the political arena as well as among their lay-members. It threatens to make them irrelevant and hurts their cause more than many social issue like marriage equality ever could. Opposing civil equality, even when most legislation goes above and beyond to add in religious exemptions (like Illinois "Religious Freedom Protection and Civl Union Act"), makes them seem unreasonable and ill-fitting in a modern world.
Moving towards marriage equality may be difficult but is vitally necessary. Civil unions create a lower class of recognition that, while providing much needed rights and protections, reinforce the idea that LGBT relationships are less than their heterosexual counterparts. Creating this new, separate, and different levels of rights and recognition among committed couples only creates further inequity, confusion, and discord.
Fighting this basic fact may well be a losing battle for the Catholic Church. It may also permanently damage them with their members and with the larger society a well. Being on the wrong side of history never bodes well.