The presidential race captures all the headlines, but there are several important state-level election issues this year for Catholics concerned with matters of life, the family and religious freedom. 

On Nov. 6, voters will be deciding on ballot initiatives regarding same-sex marriage, assisted suicide, the death penalty and religious liberty. 

The bishops in those states have spoken out on the issues and, through their respective state Catholic conferences, have urged all Catholics to vote in defense of traditional marriage and life. 

Here is an overview of those state-level election issues. 

Death penalty

California 

Proposition 34 would make California the 18th state to eliminate the death penalty. 

death penalty

If Californians approve it, Proposition 34 would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. The initiative would apply retroactively to about 725 inmates now on death row. 

Proponents say the initiative would also direct $100 million to law enforcement agencies to investigate homicide and rape cases, and that state and county criminal justice agencies would save about $130 million annually within a few years. 

But in addition to the financial savings, the California Catholic Conference says it supports the initiative because “as Catholics we hold human life as sacred and believe that in the exercise of justice, this principle must prevail in the manner we treat one another, even for those who have done great harm.” 

The California Catholic Conference added: “We also support this initiative because as citizens we find the use of the death penalty unnecessary, impractical and expensive.”

Abortion, religious liberty

Florida 

On Nov. 6, Floridians will vote on two ballot measures that would amend the state’s constitution to stop public funding for abortions and strengthen protections for religiously affiliated agencies that provide social services. 

To amend the Florida Constitution, both measures need 60 percent or more of voters to approve them. 

abortion

Amendment 6 would prohibit public funds from being used to pay for abortions or health benefits that include abortion coverage. Proponents say the measure would also prevent the state constitution from being interpreted to give broader abortion rights than what are allowed under the U.S. Constitution. 

The Florida Catholic Conference said: “Precious health care dollars should be allotted those who need them most — the disabled, children, elderly and others who do not have the luxury of health insurance to cover their critical health needs.” 

The conference is also urging passage of Amendment 8, which says that no individual or agency, on the basis of religious identity or belief, can be denied government benefits, funds or other support, except as required under the First Amendment. 

It is designed to ensure continued delivery of social services provided by faith-based organizations. Though Catholic organizations such as hospitals, social service agencies and disaster relief services already partner with the state, those efforts are continually subject to legal scrutiny because of a 19th-century law, rooted in anti-Catholic sentiment, that bans public funding for religiously affiliated groups. 

The conference says: “Amendment 8 will protect religious freedom by ensuring that organizations and individuals have an equal and rightful place in the public square.”

Assisted suicide

Massachusetts 

The Bay State could become the third state in the country — after Oregon and Washington state — to legalize assisted suicide if enough voters approve a ballot measure called the Death with Dignity Act. 

assisted suicide

The ballot measure would allow someone diagnosed with a terminal illness, and given less than six months to live, to request a lethal dose of drugs. Two witnesses would need to say the person was acting voluntarily. The patient would have to self-administer the lethal dose, with the official cause of death not being listed as suicide, but rather the underlying illness. 

The state’s bishops have spoken out against the measure. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, said in a video-recorded statement that, despite arguments to the contrary, assisted suicide is not a compassionate response to the plight of the terminally ill. 

“We are called to comfort the sick, not to help them take their own lives,” he said. 

Same-sex marriage

Maine 

Maine is one of four states where same-sex marriage is on the ballot in November. 

The Maine Legislature legalized same-sex marriage in 2009, but the law was subsequently overturned by a people’s referendum later that year. Same-sex marriage supporters gathered enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot again, and they have been active in advertising and outreach efforts to persuade a majority of Maine voters to support it. 

The same-sex marriage lobby is pushing for Maine to become the first state to legalize same-sex marriage through a statewide vote. So far, when put up to a vote, same-sex marriage has lost every time, in 31 states. 

The Church in Maine has sought to counter the efforts of proponents by sponsoring a series of statewide meetings built around a pastoral letter released earlier this year by Bishop Richard Joseph Malone, formerly of Portland, Maine, and currently in Buffalo, N.Y. 

Bishop Malone said, in response to threats to the family and religious freedom, the Church “is compelled to teach and speak with renewed fervor about marriage and the family in fullness of both truth and charity.” 

Maryland 

The Church in Maryland is also looking to fight back same-sex marriage. 

same sex marriage

In February, the state’s General Assembly passed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, which was signed into law a month later by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Catholic. 

A ballot initiative — known as Question 6 — asks voters to affirm the law. As worded, the initiative legalizes same-sex marriage in Maryland, protects clergy from officiating at same-sex weddings, affirms that each religious faith has exclusive control over its theological doctrines regarding marriage and says religiously affiliated organizations are not obliged to provide goods and services related to same-sex weddings. 

The Maryland Catholic Conference is urging Marylanders to vote against Question 6 and uphold traditional marriage. The conference warns that Marylanders “should not be fooled into thinking we can redefine marriage and still protect religious liberty.”

Minnesota 

Same-sex marriage is already illegal in Minnesota, but a proposed amendment to the state constitution would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. 

Arguing in favor of the amendment, proponents have cited lawsuits filed by same-sex couples looking to overturn the state’s marriage law. Two recent polls indicate that a majority of voters support the proposed constitutional amendment. 

Archbishop John C. Nien-stedt, head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, wrote an open letter in the archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Spirit, urging Catholics to vote for the amendment. 

“Our effort to support God’s unchanging plan for marriage is not a campaign against anyone,” he wrote. “But rather a positive effort to promote the truth about marriage as a union between one and one woman.” 

Washington state 

Referendum 74 on the November ballot would make Washington the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage. 

The measure would ratify legislation, signed in February by Gov. Christine Gregoire, to allow same-sex couples to marry. Recent polling indicates that 52 percent of state voters approve of the measure, with about 8 percent undecided. 

The Washington State Catholic Conference distributed a pastoral statement to parishes affirming that marriage can only be between one man and one woman, and urging Catholics to uphold the Church’s teaching on marriage “for the good of the Church, society, spouses and their children.” 

“The legal separation of marriage from procreation would have a chilling effect on religious liberty and the right of conscience,” said the bishops. 

Brian Fraga writes from Texas.