Election Day 2012 brought several disappointing defeats for Catholic bishops and their supporters who advocated for the defense of life, traditional marriage and religious freedom on state-level ballot questions. 

Voters legalized same-sex marriage in three states while, in Minnesota, a ballot question was defeated that would have amended that state’s constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

‘A dark day’

California: Rejected Proposition 34, which would have ended the death penalty in the state

In Florida, a majority of voters went against two proposed amendments that had been supported by the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those amendments would have amended the state’s constitution to stop public funding for abortions and to strengthen protections for religiously affiliated agencies that provide social services. A 19th-century state law, rooted in anti-Catholic bias, makes those agencies’ efforts subject to continuous legal scrutiny. 

“Religious providers of vital services to all members of the community will continue to live under the shadow of a potential challenge to their successful partnerships with our state and local governments,” said Michael Sheedy, associate director for health for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

The California Catholic Conference urged Catholics to vote in favor of Proposition 34, which would have ended the death penalty in that state. California voters rejected the measure. 

“Rejecting Proposition 34 represents a missed opportunity for us as a people,” the California bishops said. 

The election results have raised questions in some corners about the bishops’ influence, especially given their campaign this year on religious liberty.  

Father Michael Orsi, chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria University, told Our Sunday Visitor that the election appears to suggest the bishops are “toothless tigers.” 

“They’re unable to rally their own troops,” said Father Orsi, who noted that the majority of the Catholic vote went for President Barack Obama despite his administration’s clashes with the bishops over the federal mandate that employers cover contraception, abortifacients and sterilization in health insurance plans. 

“It really is a dark day in my opinion,” Father Orsi said.

Encouraging outcomes

However, from a Catholic perspective, not all was lost on Election Day. 

Voters in Montana approved a ballot measure to require parental notification for minor girls seeking abortions. In Maryland, 58 percent of voters approved the state’s DREAM Act, which allows some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. 

The Maryland Catholic Conference had urged passage of the act, and said that “the Catholic Church will continue to advocate for equitable educational opportunities for all, and for a just and humane solution to our country’s broken immigration system.” 

In Massachusetts, 51 percent of voters defeated a ballot question to legalize assisted suicide. The state’s four Catholic dioceses teamed with medical and disability-rights groups to fight the measure, which would have made Massachusetts the third state to legalize assisted suicide. 

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, said the vote demonstrated that residents recognized the common good was best served in defeating the measure, known as Question 2. 

“It is my hope and prayer that the defeat of Question 2 will help all people to understand that for our brothers and sisters confronted with terminal illness we can do better than offering them the means to end their lives,” Cardinal O’Malley said. 

Even in Washington state, where 53 percent of voters legalized same-sex marriage, Greg Magnoni, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Seattle, told OSV that the close margin of defeat still shows that many people remain “very troubled” by the redefinition of marriage. 

“This doesn’t at all reflect a sea change in the definition of marriage,” he said, adding that same-sex marriage proponents outspent their opposition by $10 million. He said the state’s bishops have “made it clear that we have a multi-generational responsibility to teach the Church’s understanding of marriage, and we’ll remain committed to that.”

Marriage matters

However, the Election Day numbers seem to suggest that the Church may have a tough road ahead when issues of life and morality arise in the public square. 

In addition to Washington state, majorities of voters in Maryland and Maine legalized same-sex marriage. Previously, whenever the issue was put to a popular vote, it lost every time. Six other states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Iowa and New York — and Washington, D.C., previously legalized same-sex marriage through court decisions and legislative action. 

In Minnesota, 51 percent of voters rejected a question to amend the state constitution to prevent marriage from being defined as anything other than the union of one man and one woman. Despite the setback, the Minnesota Catholic Conference said its efforts “to promote and defend the cornerstone social institution of marriage will continue.” 

Still, political analysts say Election Day victories for same-sex marriage may reflect the nation’s shifting attitudes on homosexuality and marriage. National support for same-sex marriage has grown over the past decade, with several polls, first beginning in 2010, showing majorities in favor of same-sex marriage. Another factor is the reality that younger, more secular-minded voters are entering the electorate, which increases the possibility that future elections may hold more victories for same-sex marriage. 

However, Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which defends traditional marriage, said the election results on same-sex marriage do not reflect a shift in public attitudes, but rather the fact that same-sex marriage proponents outspent their opposition by more than 4-to-1. Brown said defenders of traditional marriage also had to battle liberal state-level political establishments. 

“Americans remain strongly in favor of marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” Brown said. 

The day after the election, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, called for renewed efforts to strengthen and protect marriage and family life.  

“In a society marked by increasing poverty and family fragmentation, marriage needs to be strengthened, promoted, and defended, not redefined,” he said. 

In a Nov. 7 letter to Obama, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York and USCCB president, said he hoped the president would exercise his office for the common good, especially in defense of the vulnerable, the unborn, the poor and the immigrant. “We will continue to stand in defense of life, marriage, and our first, most cherished liberty, religious freedom,” he said.

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.

Related archive article on ballot measures: Life, family issues are on ballot in several states