Knights of Columbus ‘defend’ marriage

While all eyes were on California during a battle to outlaw same-sex marriage, a major front was being waged just a few blocks from Old Campus.

In a towering building on State Street sits the headquarters of an international lay Catholic organization, the Knights of Columbus. As Connecticut became the third state to issue same-sex marriage licenses Wednesday, the New Haven-based Knights concentrated their efforts to secure a different fate in California. Donating $1.4 million in support of Proposition 8 — California’s ballot measure to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage — the KOC is the measure’s single largest donor nationwide in the fight against gay marriage. And their fight is a crusade, with emphasis on family values.

The Knights of Columbus, founded in New Haven, have their own museum. But their influence in the state is still slight.
Kate Kraft
The Knights of Columbus, founded in New Haven, have their own museum. But their influence in the state is still slight.

Back in Connecticut, voters turned down Ballot Question #1, which called for a constitutional convention that in this case could have led to a ban on gay marriage. In retrospect, the members of the KOC said the convention failed in Connecticut because the ballot question — unlike referendums across the country — was not exclusively about gay marriage. But opponents maintain that the KOC focused their efforts heavily on California in light of a shifting tide of opinion in favor of gay marriage in Connecticut.

THE KNIGHTS IN THE TRENCHES

In a great stone scowl of a building with lofty brick columns, KOC Vice President for Communications Patrick Korten has an office overlooking the Long Island Sound. Three ornate crosses hang on the wall next to framed wedding photos. From one of the building’s sweeping views over downtown New Haven, Korten is quick to point out St. Mary’s church, where the Knights of Columbus was founded.

Although the KOC gave funds to fight gay marriage in its home state as well as in California, Connecticut proved a significant stumbling block, Korten admitted.

One of the reasons the convention did not pass in Connecticut, he said, was because the ballot question was not a direct referendum on gay marriage.

But on a broader level, the state has seen major shifts in public attitudes toward gay marriage, said Anne Stanback DIV ’85, director of Love Makes a Family, a Connecticut-wide nonprofit fighting for marriage equality. And many clergy of varying religions across the state have voiced support for marriage equality, she said.

Still, she said, the KOC have been diverting their attention from the state of Connecticut for the past three years.

“It seems as if they saw the way winds were blowing in Connecticut and turned their attention to other states instead,” she said.

But Korten disputed this claim, saying the KOC spent a considerable amount in Connecticut and struggled because the ballot question put before voters was not as clear as it had been in other states.

While Korten declined to cite the amount of funding spent in Connecticut, he said a “substantial” amount of money was given in support of the convention.

“It was enough to help with the television ads that ran the closing days on the air,” he said.

In California, the KOC has been donating since early this year, and gave a $250,000 donation directly from its general revenues in late January. Roughly eight months later, the KOC created a separate fund devoted to issues on the ballot in the 2008 election, which raised a total of $2.75 million, Korten said. $1.15 million from the separate fund was donated to combat gay marriage in California. When the fund was established, he said, the KOC sent an e-mail to all of its 1.28 million U.S. members, asking them to donate and support the organization’s efforts against gay marriage, stem cell research and assisted suicide. There are roughly 64,000 active members of the KOC in California, he said.

For the KOC, Korten stated, fighting gay marriage is necessary in order to protect families. And the organization has been actively combating in 30 states. Massachusetts and Connecticut represent two losses for the KOC, which Korten attributes to the obstacles in both states that prevent groups from bringing a constitutional matter before voters.

As for KOC’s plans to further fight gay marriage in their home state, Korten looked mildly perturbed. He paused for about five seconds and then laughed.

“If you’ve got an idea, I’m willing to listen,” he said.

RELIGION AND RIGHTS

The role of religion — and KOC’s status as the country’s largest lay Catholic organization — weighs prominently in the gay marriage debate, both in Connecticut and across the country. Religious values were the primary motivation behind the passing of Prop 8, said Jason Howe, the senior public information officer at Lambda Legal and former spokesperson for the “No on 8” campaign in California.

Maggie Gallagher ’82, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which was active in the fight for Prop 8, said individuals of all faiths have the right to weigh in on a constitutional amenendment.

But George Chauncey, chair of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender studies at Yale and an expert on gay marriage, said some religious groups have long histories of struggling to control their members’ right to marry — an effort, he said, now manifested in the battle over gay marriage. “The problem with the way the debate has been framed is that it is imposing one religious view … on everyone else,” he said.

The actions of a Catholic organization like the KOC reflect little consideration of their own roots, agreed Dale Martin, a religious studies professor. He said it was ironic that the KOC’s founding was predicated on combating discrimination against Catholics, yet the organization went on to discriminate against others.

Still, Gallagher said people of all religions and belief systems voted in favor of the proposition. She said that attacks on religious groups that supported the measure were undue.

“The attacks on religious minorities (the [Mormon] church and African-Americans) for exercising their core civil rights to speak, to vote, and to donate are shameful and deeply contrary to the best American tradition,” she wrote in an e-mail to the News.

Proposition 8 passed in California by a margin of 4.4 percent of the vote. In Connecticut, voters blocked a state convention — thereby allowing same sex marriage — by a margin of 18 percent.

Comments