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In a significant show of support, over 25,000 Catholics state-wide lent their signatures to the ballot initiative that would amend the Massachusetts Constitution to restore the traditional definition of marriage during weekend Masses Oct. 1-2.
"Protect Marriage Sunday," as it was dubbed by VoteOnMarriage.org, a coalition of organizations which support the ballot initiative, was the first major push for Catholics to participate in the signature drive.
According to Larry Cirignano, executive director of Catholic Citizenship, a non-partisan organization which promotes public policy education and lay Catholic involvement in the political process, roughly one-third of the parishes of the Archdiocese of Boston participated in the signature drive.
The proposed Massachusetts Protection of Marriage Amendment would limit future marriages to the union of one man and one woman but would leave existing same-sex marriages intact.
It reads, “When recognizing marriages entered into after the adoption of this amendment by the people, the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall define marriage only as the union of one man and one woman.”
Last month the Legislature overwhelmingly rejected another proposed amendment that would have restored the traditional definition of marriage but created a constitutional guarantee to same-sex civil unions with all the same rights and privileges of marriage.
Among the parishes participating in the petition drive was St. Patrick Church in Roxbury.
"It just seems so strange for me to stand here today and preach what I think is so obvious: Marriage is between a man and a woman," said Father Walter Waldron, pastor of St. Patrick Parish, who used his Sunday homily to rally support for the ballot initiative.
"It's not just our faith," he said. "It's for the good of society."
Supporters of same-sex marriage, led by the MassEquality advocacy group, gathered outside many churches on Sunday to protest the signature drive.
"We completely respect people's right to worship," said Marc Solomon, the group's political director. "However, we are very concerned that the Church hierarchy has made taking away marriage equality -- and replacing it with nothing else -- such a high priority."
Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley also urged congregants to sign the petition at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross during the annual Pro-Life Mass. According to Cirignano, several hundred people signed the petition at the cathedral alone.
In order for the ballot initiative to move forward, 65,825 registered voters must sign the petition before the Nov. 23 deadline.
"We are well on our way to collecting the signatures we need," said Cirignano.
Although many parishes have already participated in the signature drive, there are still some that “are just getting started,” Cirignano said.
The signature gathering was the culmination of a three-week program designed by Catholic Citizenship to educate parishioners on the current ballot initiative. In the first week, a pamphlet entitled “The New Marriage Amendment: An Introduction to Catholics,” was inserted into parish bulletins. The following week, separate statements issued by each of the four Massachusetts bishops urging Catholics to support the petition effort were distributed to parishioners.
On average, “each parish in the archdiocese must collect 200 signatures for us to be successful,” Cirignano explained. Of course, given that the goal is an average, large parishes will be expected to gather more signatures than small ones, he noted.
The Catholic Church is not alone in the effort to support traditional marriage in Massachusetts. This weekend, several Protestant churches and Jewish congregations also participated in the signature drive. Cirignano who is involved only in the Catholic dioceses’effort, would not speculate as to how many signatures were gathered by other religious organizations.
Cirignano added that “even if we had all the signatures we needed, we would continue the petition drive,” as a way to raise awareness among Catholics.
"It's not just about getting the number of signatures, it's about getting the information out there to as many people as we can," Cirignano said.
According to Cirignano, each signed petition must now be verified and certified by individual town clerk’s offices. The signed petitions will then be delivered to the office of Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who will tally the number of certified signed petitions.
If the required number of signed petitions is collected before the November deadline, the ballot initiative will go before the Legislature in constitutional convention, where it must be approved by 25 percent of lawmakers in two consecutive sessions before it can be put on the ballot. The earliest Massachusetts citizens could vote on the amendment is November 2008.
Associated press materials contributed to this report.