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Lay Catholics Leading Fight For LGBT Equality

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June is designated as pride month, a time when LGBT people across the world celebrate the gains made in society and continue fighting for equality. Lots of groups and companies get in on the action, some to show solidarity and some to make a buck or two. One group that has been at the helm of the fight for gay equality in the US is the Roman Catholic community.

Come again?

The Catholic Church's official stance on same-sex marriage is widely known. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has elevated the defeat of same-sex marriage to high status; the Knights of Columbus ranked among the largest donors in overturning marriage equality in California; and Catholic bishops in Minnesota spent considerable resources producing and distributing anti-gay marriage DVDs throughout the state. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, as Archbishop of New York and president of the USCCB, does not shy away in denouncing Catholics who stray from the party line. Despite all this, lay Catholics have been leaders in the fight for equal rights for gay Americans.

The battle for same-sex marriage has been fought largely at the state level, and of the nine states that have or have had same-sex marriage rights (same-sex marriage laws in Maine and California were repealed), six were adopted through the legislative process. Five of those six laws were signed by Catholic governors: John Baldacci in Maine; John Lynch in New Hampshire; Andrew Cuomo in New York; Chris Gregoire in Washington; and Martin O'Malley in Maryland (Vermont's legislature overrode the veto of Gov. Jim Douglas, a member of the United Church of Christ). Some of these governors faced harsh opposition from local Catholic bishops and lobbying groups, but O'Malley and Gregoire both said explicitly that they were motivated by their Catholic faith to support marriage equality.

At the federal level, as well, Catholics rank among the most ardent supporters of gay marriage. When the United States Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in 2003 in the case Lawrence v. Texas, it was a Catholic, Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion for the Court. A Catholic vice president, Joe Biden, went on national television and came out in support of gay marriage. A few days later, his boss followed suit.

It's not just the elites who are leading the way. Catholics support same-sex marriage at higher rates than any other Christian group, including all mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, and Mormons. A recent Pew survey found that Catholics support gay marriage by a margin of 52 percent to 37 percent, up from 2010, when 46 percent of Catholics favored marriage equality.

Catholic sisters, the beleaguered women who historically have run the social justice institutions that have served so many Catholics and non-Catholics alike, have quietly supported gays and lesbians for decades, perhaps leading to a recent crackdown by church officials. Even if not challenging bishops, these women so often act as the pastoral face of the church, offering much needed pastoral support to those on the front lines of this culture war.

More quietly, at the most personal levels, gay Catholics and their families find support in the church from brave priests, monks, and lay ministers. A few Benedictine monks, living humbly and quietly in New Hampshire, have privately offered their solidarity and prayer to me over the years. This gentle love and devotion to the Gospel commandment of treating others how you wish to be treated may be off the radar and away from public consciousness, but it is a lifeline to those who feel marginalized, alone, and even angry.

Pope Benedict has called gay marriage a threat to the future of humanity, and the Catholic Church in the US remains a powerful force against same-sex marriage. Its ordained leaders are entrenched and buoyed by a faction of vocal conservatives. But this is not the case for ordinary Catholics, the everyday women and men who love their gay sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, friends and coworkers. And it is not the case for many lay Catholics who hold positions of power in state and federal government.

Catholic bishops and priests in the US have planted the seeds of social justice for generations. Increased support for gay marriage among lay Catholics and elected officials is the harvest.