By Nicole Neroulias
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A handful of Roman Catholic churches in Washington state, whose Catholic governor signed a law allowing gay marriage earlier this year, have refused to circulate a petition endorsed by their archbishop to repeal the law, congregation leaders said.
Opponents of same-sex marriage, due to go into effect this summer in the state, have been rallying conservative religious leaders to gather the 120,577 signatures they need by June 6 to secure a spot on the November 2012 ballot for their repeal push.
A bulletin from Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who testified against the gay marriage bill, and the Washington State Catholic Conference has asked parishes to participate in the signature-gathering effort and "do everything you can to uphold the traditional definition of marriage in our state."
"We bishops have already made known our strong opposition to the redefinition of marriage, and we will continue to do so," the letter said. "Because we believe that this issue is critically important, we ... have approved the gathering of signatures in our parishes over the next few months."
But the archdiocese technically left it up to congregation leaders to decide whether to directly collect signatures, and seven Seattle-area parishes have opted against it. The petitions were expected to begin circulating in many churches on Sunday.
Reverend Michael Ryan of St. James Cathedral, which opted not to take part in the petition drive, told church members in an email: "Doing so would, I believe, prove hurtful and seriously divisive in our community."
Using similar language, the pastoral life coordinator at St. Mary's Church, Tricia Wittmann-Todd, said collecting signatures would be "hurtful and divisive" to her parish.
"I am particularly concerned about our youth who may be questioning their own sexual identity and need our support at this time in their lives," she said in a statement.
The Roman Catholic Church is Washington state's largest single religious denomination, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives and the Official Catholic Report, but accounts for only about 12 percent of the population.
The state has about 300 Catholic churches, mostly in the Seattle area.
DIFFERENCES OF OPINION
Bishops from the Diocese of Yakima and the Diocese of Spokane instructed their member parishes to participate in the petition drive. So far, no churches in those regions, which are more politically conservative than those in Seattle, have announced that they will not circulate the petitions.
"There's a clear division in the Catholic church on this," said Zach Silk, spokesman for pro-gay marriage group Washington United for Marriage. "It's not a surprise to us that there's a strong feeling among most lay Catholics and some leadership that this isn't something the church should get itself involved with."
Some prominent Catholic citizens have been actively working with Washington United for Marriage to keep same-sex marriage on the books, ranging from Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire to Barbara Guzzo, a Seattle woman who formed Catholics for Marriage Equality in Washington.
Guzzo, 62, a member of St. Mary's, said she applauded her church's decision, which reflects the community's beliefs in love, inclusion, justice and church-state separation. She and Silk both said at least seven churches had opted out.
"There are Catholics who clearly aren't going to move off the position of marriage as only between one man and one woman, but this is about civil marriage," she said, adding that some Catholics dislike the idea of circulating legislative petitions in church, which has not been done since the late 1980s.
If the repeal referendum qualifies for the November ballot, gay marriage would be put on hold until after the election. If voters back repeal at the ballot box, the state would still recognize domestic partnerships but not same-sex marriage.
Joseph Backholm, an evangelical Christian leading the Preserve Marriage Washington referendum effort, said more than 1,500 religious institutions of all denominations had requested petitions so far.
"It's every flavor of Protestant denomination, Catholics, mosques, Chinese churches, Korean churches," Backholm said. "It's every part of the state. We do not discriminate on the basis of anything, as far as this is concerned."
He said he was not concerned about Catholic churches opting out of the petition, particularly in the Seattle area, where he expects voters will support keeping the gay marriage law.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)