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The Father of Proposition 8

Meet Oakland Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, the apostle of the movement to deprive gay men and lesbians of the right to marry.

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Proposition 8, the California constitutional amendment that deprived gay men and women of the right to marry one another, was perhaps the ugliest and most divisive electoral moment since Proposition 187, which denied illegal immigrant children access to health care and public education. All across the state, gay men, lesbians, and their friends picketed hostile churches and boycotted businesses that backed the amendment. And as they contemplated their fate, they asked themselves: Who did this to us? Was it the Mormons? The National Organization for Marriage? Black voters? White evangelical megachurches?

Now, eight months after the election that broke so many hearts, the truth has come out. It was the new Catholic bishop of Oakland.

When Salvatore Cordileone was picked to run the Catholic Church's Oakland diocese in March, his opposition to gay marriage was noted, but his reputation as a Spanish-speaking friend to the country's rising Latino population took center stage. Here was a dedicated, caring man of God who spent years studying in the Vatican and sweltered as a parish priest in the poor, immigrant-heavy town of Calexico. "Bishop Sal," as he's called, would lend his considerable moral voice to the struggles of impoverished immigrants, working tirelessly for their dignity and security.

What almost no one knows is that without Bishop Sal, gay men and lesbians would almost surely still be able to get married today. As an auxiliary bishop in San Diego, Cordileone played an indispensable role in conceiving, funding, organizing, and ultimately winning the campaign to pass Proposition 8. It was Bishop Sal and a small group of Catholic leaders who decided that they had to amend the state constitution. It was Bishop Sal who found the first major donor and flushed the fledgling campaign with cash. It was Bishop Sal who personally brought in the organization that took the lead on the petition drive. And it was Bishop Sal who coordinated the Catholic effort with evangelical churches around the state. Bishop Sal even helped craft the campaign's rhetorical strategy, sitting in on focus groups to hone the message of Proposition 8.

We know all this because as homosexuals and their supporters were wondering how this all came about, Cordileone gloated about his work in an interview with an obscure Catholic radio network. He bragged about how gay men and lesbians never saw him coming and called gay marriage a Satanic plot by "the Evil One" to destroy morality in the modern world.

Now, Cordileone's work has been rewarded, and the Vatican has made him the most important religious figure in the East Bay. Alameda County is one of the most liberal and gay-friendly parts of the world; it arguably has the most lesbian residents in the United States, and voters here rejected Proposition 8 by almost 62 percent. And the man who leads some 400,000 Catholics from his new Lake Merritt cathedral, who articulates the loudest moral and religious voice in the region and has the power of the Vatican at his disposal, just got done taking the right to marry from every gay man and woman in the East Bay.


When you first speak to Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, you're immediately struck by his sincerity and compassion. Throughout the Proposition 8 campaign, he took great pains to emphasize the humanity of gay men and lesbians, citing the catechism and a pastoral letter that denounces anti-gay prejudice. Even today, as he prepares to lead a flock torn by anger and recrimination, he hopes that God's love for all his children will prevail. "I know there's a lot of bitter feelings about this," he said in a recent interview, "but we're trying to love everyone the way the Lord would have us do."

In fact, Charles LiMandri, the general counsel for the National Organization for Marriage's California chapter and a key figure in the Proposition 8 campaign, claimed that it was precisely this generosity of spirit that made Cordileone such an exceptional ambassador for the campaign. "If you were to count on one hand the people who were the important in that effort, I would include him in that," LiMandri said. "He tried to approach this in a loving way, and I think this made a real difference. ... He wasn't judgmental. Gay and lesbian people are children of God, and he has always welcomed them into the church."

Cordileone has been a rising star in the Catholic Church from the moment he put on the collar. Born and raised in San Diego, he entered the seminary in 1974 and transferred to the Catholic-run University of San Diego. From there, Cordileone's career was a mix of rigorous study in Rome and hard work among the most desperately poor parishioners of California. He obtained his doctorate at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, then turned around and worked as a pastor in Calexico, four blocks from the Mexican border.

But along with a crackerjack mind and an intense identification with the poor, Cordileone has cultivated one of the most theologically conservative worldviews imaginable. Especially when it comes to sexual matters, Bishop Sal is conservative and uncompromising. In 2006, the US Conference of Bishops was drafting a pastoral letter that listed examples of sins so great that Catholics could not in good conscience receive the sacrament of Communion unless they repented of them through the sacrament of penance. Cordileone led an effort to include the use of contraception among them. The effort failed, but if Cordileone had his way, women on the Pill would be banned from receiving the body of Christ.

And when it came to gay marriage, Bishop Cordileone saw nothing less than an assault by the forces of postmodernism and the devil upon God's most critical moral foundation. So when the debate came to San Diego, Bishop Sal decided to act. California would never be the same.


For years, Bishop Cordileone was mostly known in the San Diego press for coping with the fallout of the church's child-molestation scandal. But when San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom started marrying gay men and women in 2004, a new challenge presented itself.

Newly minted gay husbands and wives filed a legal challenge to Proposition 22, which had restricted marriage to heterosexual couples. Meanwhile, the state legislature repeatedly voted to overturn Proposition 22 and allow gay marriage. Although Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the legislature's decision, Cordileone grew increasingly alarmed.

In the summer of 2007, Toni Atkins, a lesbian member of the San Diego City Council, introduced a motion to file a friend-of-the-court brief supporting gay marriage in the state Supreme Court. A small group of fifteen to twenty Catholic leaders began organizing to oppose the motion, and they asked Cordileone to join them. Bishop Sal agreed and put himself to work. The more he organized, the more he concluded that gay marriage was a threat.

"I knew things that were happening across the country, but it opened my eyes the more as to how this legislation would erode civil, religious rights," Cordileone said in an interview on A Body of Truth, a Catholic radio show. "This has happened all over the country and in other countries as well. And as well as, basically, 'We'll label and treat as bigots anyone who believes this idea, that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.' Which has been believed in every human society in all of history."

According to Atkins, Cordileone's campaign swamped the San Diego City Council with stacks of letters, begging the council not to back gay marriage. "We got thousands of e-mails, particularly from the Catholic community," she said. "And he was at the forefront of that effort." Hundreds of people from both sides packed the council chambers, stepping up to the podium and fiercely pleading with the council. After a few hours, the vote was tabled until the next session, when hundreds more showed up, and Bishop Cordileone personally asked the council not to do this thing. The pressure, Atkins says, was almost overwhelming. But in the end, the city council stood its ground and voted 5-3 to send the brief to the California Supreme Court.

There was just one problem. The mayor, a rock-ribbed, law-and-order Republican named Jerry Sanders, had already vowed to veto the legislation. That wasn't especially troubling, since the council had the votes to override his veto. But if he noodled over it and then issued a veto, the delay could hinder the filing just long enough for the Supreme Court to decide the case without hearing from San Diego. Atkins came to Sanders with a request: If you're going to veto it, just do it quickly.

What followed was one of the most remarkable moments in the history of California's experiment with gay marriage. Atkins and state Senator Christine Kehoe were at San Diego City Hall the day after the vote when the mayor walked up to them. "He pulled Senator Kehoe and I aside and said after a great deal of soul-searching and consideration with his family, he had decided not to veto the resolution," Atkins said. "We were shocked. Christine was literally speechless for a moment. And she said, 'Thank you, your honor.' It was a pretty emotional moment."

This was a moment of truth for Sanders. He was running for re-election in a few months and had yet to get his fund-raising operation started; when word got out that he was going back on his pledge, his political career could end on the spot. Later that afternoon, Sanders convened a press conference. With his wife by his side, choking back tears and repeatedly pausing to pull himself together, this former police chief explained why he couldn't veto the legislation after all.

"I have close family members and friends who are members of the gay and lesbian community," Sanders said. "Those folks include my daughter Lisa, as well as members of my personal staff. I want for them the same thing that we all want for our loved ones. For each of them to find a mate whom they love deeply and who loves them back. Someone with whom they can grow old together and share life's experiences. And I want their relationships to be equally protected under the law. In the end, I couldn't look any of them in the face and tell them that their relationship, their very lives, were any less meaningful than the marriage I share with my wife."

Sanders' announcement was an immediate YouTube sensation, a raw, honest, vulnerable moment that laid bare the essential humanity of homosexuals everywhere. A few more moments like this, gay men and lesbians allowed themselves to hope, and their love could finally live in the sunlight.

But Bishop Sal wasn't quite as pleased. "That whole event is what set off an alarm button for people," he said in a later interview. "They realized how fast things were changing, and what was at stake. ... We had to decide what to do. And that's how the idea came up."

Only one thing would cauterize this wound, Cordileone and his friends decided. In a series of meetings through the fall of 2007, Cordileone, LiMandri, and fifteen to twenty fellow Catholic San Diegans came to a conclusion: The time had come to amend the state constitution.


At first, Cordileone's project looked utterly impossible. After all, everyone said so. "People who are very supportive of this, with lots of experience in California politics, said that this was impossible to do," Cordileone said on A Body of Truth radio show. "We needed to file the initiative by the third week of April; we would need to raise at least $1.5 million, possibly more, in order to collect paid signatures. ... In addition to that, we would have needed a record number of volunteer signatures through the churches and other means. They said we simply did not have enough time; it would have been wiser to wait until June 2010."

But the bishop and his friends were too worried that the Supreme Court would make gay marriage a reality. After considering and rejecting a proposal to include the outlawing of domestic partnerships, the core San Diego group decided to take the fourteen words in Proposition 22 and submit them as a constitutional amendment. "We decided we have to step out in faith, to step out boldly, and pray to God and ask for a miracle."

Fortunately, Bishop Sal had a little more than God on his side. Cordileone had been strategizing with ecumenical opponents of gay marriage for years, and a shadow network known as "Protect Marriage" was already in place. The National Organization for Marriage, a New Jersey nonprofit dedicated to fighting same-sex marriage around the country, had what Cordileone called both the intellectual arguments and the "practical know-how" to run the campaign. On December 23, 2007, Cordileone called organization president Maggie Gallagher and asked her group to come to California and get to work. Within weeks, the organization was helping to collect signatures.

But it was in the area of fund-raising that Cordileone was most helpful, especially in the project's first days. With just a few months before the deadline to submit signatures, the campaign was flat broke. Cordileone opened up his Rolodex and called a friend of his, a man with a lot of cash and connections. The bishop refuses to name this donor, claiming that gay-marriage supporters could retaliate against him. But he says that without this donor's initial contribution, the campaign would never have gotten off the ground. "Early on, I was going to people that I thought would be supportive of this," Cordileone said. "That kind of got the ball rolling."

Eventually, millions of dollars would flood into the campaign, much of it from powerful Catholics, and especially from Catholic businessmen in San Diego, Cordileone's home turf. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, gave $1 million. Doug Manchester, a San Diego hotelier who sat with Cordileone on the University of San Diego board of trustees, gave $125,000. Terry Caster, who operates San Diego's A-1 Self Storage, donated almost $700,000. Throughout it all, Cordileone continued to speak at fund-raisers around Southern California.

"The National Organization for Marriage were the ones that took the lead, but he had the contacts, and he had the position of authority," said Proposition 8 leader Charles LiMandri. "He's always been on the front lines of issues. He's known to be someone that walks the walk and not just talk the talk. Other priests and bishops don't want to get out there. They don't want to be criticized as being intolerant because of their beliefs. I think bishops have a lot more influence than they realize. And he uses his influence."

At the same time, evangelical ministers around California began working on their own campaign, and they soon hooked up with Cordileone and began coordinating a statewide effort. Every month, evangelical pastors would get together on a conference call, praying and discussing how to redouble their efforts. Cordileone was on the line each time, representing the Catholic voice.

Cordileone even had a hand in crafting the message of the campaign. As professional campaign organizers shopped different angles around to focus groups, they decided to shift their pitch as far from the question of gay rights as possible. Instead, the campaign would be all about judicial activism, religious liberty, sex education in public schools, and the idea that children need both a mother and a father. Bishop Sal sat in on two of those focus groups as campaign leaders passed around a "proposed" sex-education textbook called "My Daddy's Wedding," watching as people blanched at the gay-friendly subject matter.

And as the campaign grew and grew, Cordileone was astonished at how complacent "the other side" was. He quietly watched as gay men and lesbians took their victory for granted, never imagining that their foes were assembling a powerful and disciplined coalition. He would later gloat over them in his radio interview.

"What's interesting is what happened on the other side," Cordileone said. "They didn't realize until after we had collected a couple hundred thousand signatures that we were up to this. ..."

"Oho!" chuckled the radio show's host, Father Thomas Loya. "That's a big switch, Bishop Sal. The other side — we caught them sleeping!"

"This is a big switch," Cordileone agreed. "And this has taught me, one of the many lessons I've learned is that there's no question now that we are the subculture, and they are the dominant culture. Because only the dominant culture becomes complacent, and can be caught sleeping. And that's what happened."

When Cordileone faced the prospect of leading a different sort of Catholic community, he would regret his choice of words. "Maybe I was smug a little bit," he said in a recent interview.


Not every Catholic leader was as enthusiastic about the Proposition 8 campaign as Bishop Sal. Geoff Farrow was a priest and the pastor of the St. Paul Newman Center, a church serving mostly employees of Fresno College and Cal State Fresno. He also had a secret: He is gay. In July, Farrow said, he received a pastoral letter from his bishop, John Steinbock, calling on him and his fellow priests to urge their parishioners to do everything they could to pass Proposition 8.

"He made a series of statements about the No on 8 side," Farrow said in a recent interview. "Some of them were pretty horrendous. He compared them to the Nazis, the Stalinists in Russia, and China under Mao. And he said that our children would be brainwashed. It was very incendiary, and I got contacted by many priests in my diocese."

According to Farrow, the bishop's request left both church leaders and ordinary parishioners confused and divided. Farrow's pews bristled with both liberal university workers and more conservative worshipers, and they began arguing among themselves. The bishop read the statement aloud on a local Catholic television station. Some people began writing statements supporting Proposition 8 and inserting them into church bulletins, but other laypeople grew more uneasy. Finally, one of the parishioners asked Farrow, who had counseled his share of closeted gay teenagers, to say something about this to his flock.

On October 5, 2008, Mass had concluded at Farrow's church. The priest walked up to the pulpit, shuffled his papers, and read a statement.

"In directing the faithful to vote 'Yes' on Proposition 8, the California bishops are ... making a statement which has a direct, and damaging, effect on some of the people who may be sitting in the pews next you today," Farrow said. "Imagine what hearing such damaging words at Mass does to an adolescent who has just discovered that he/she is gay/lesbian? ... What would it have meant to you personally to hear from the pulpit at church that you could never date? Never fall in love, never kiss or hold hands with another person? Never be able to marry? ... How would you view your life and your future? How would you feel when you saw a car with a 'Yes on 8' bumper sticker? When you overheard someone in a public place use the word 'faggot?'

"I do not presume to tell you how to vote, but I do ask that you pray to the Creator of us all," Farrow concluded. "Personally, I am morally compelled to vote 'No' on Proposition 8. ... I know these words of truth will cost me dearly. But to withhold them would be far more costly, and I would become an accomplice to a moral evil that strips gay and lesbian people not only of their civil rights, but of their human dignity as well."

Four days later, Geoff Farrow was removed as pastor of the Newman Center. He was suspended as a priest, and his salary and benefits were stripped. He was ordered never to return to a parish he had once served, and never to publish anything on the Internet. If he did, he was told, he would be defrocked.

After that, Farrow threw himself into working to defeat Proposition 8. He still speaks out against the amendment, traveling up and down the state, wondering if the church will finally defrock him. But he has no regrets. "I could not stand in the pulpit and look my people in the eye and say something that was ultimately hurtful and contrary to what I believe was the real message of Christ," he said.


Going into the fall, supporters of gay marriage finally woke up to what they were facing. Opponents of Proposition 8 would ultimately raise more money than Cordileone and his friends. But the campaign was hapless and disorganized, and same-sex marriage supporters became better known more for sporadic acts of vandalism and boycotts than for an affirmative message they could take to the voters. Meanwhile, Bishop Sal continued speaking at fund-raising gigs and leading rallies in San Diego.

In September, as the campaign was nearing the home stretch, Cordileone flew to the Philippines to genuflect before that country's sacred Catholic sites and muse upon the power of faith. There he found new strength to continue his fight against the "brutal regimes" of modernity and secularism run amok.

"I celebrated one of their great Marian feast days there," he said on the A Body of Truth show. "Tremendous devotion, streets are packed, shrines are packed, people processing, cheering on to their mother. And I thought, you know, people in a postmodernist mentality would look at this and think these are quaint folkloric customs that have nothing to do with reality. But I thought, you know, this is the same faith that brought down a brutal dictatorship. We have other kinds of brutal regimes we're facing in this country. As people of faith come together, we can bring them down."

On November 1, on the eve of the election, Cordileone found himself at another ecstatic religious festival. Pentecostal pastor Lou Engle organized "The Call," a massive pro-Proposition 8 rally at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, the home of football's San Diego Chargers. Tens of thousands of rhapsodic souls streamed into the stadium along with a Catholic procession from Mission San Diego. For twelve hours, they swooned and spasmed to fundamentalist hip-hop and frenzied testimony from young witnesses for Christ. Beneath the scoreboard, Focus on the Family leader James Dobson and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council exhorted everyone to save marriage. "Ex-gay" men and women told their stories of deliverance from the "lifestyle." Cordileone watched as pastors called on the masses to repent of their sins of complacency and negligence, and he thrilled to what he called the "sacramental worldview" on display.

Three days later, gay men and lesbians lost their right to marry in California.


Now, Salvatore Cordileone is leading the faithful in Oakland. Almost immediately after being named the new bishop, Cordileone sent a message that he has every intention of continuing the work he pursued so vigorously in San Diego. In March, Walter Hoye, a local minister and anti-abortion activist, was jailed for violating Oakland's law keeping protesters from coming within eight feet of the entrance to an abortion clinic. Bishop Sal visited Hoye in jail, where the two shouted encouragement to one another through the glass.

But bishops have many responsibilities, and some of them include working with the public at large on charity drives, city and state legislation, and relief for immigrants and the poor. Sooner or later, the public is going to find out what Bishop Sal did down in San Diego.

Cordileone knows that he's got a tough row to hoe in his new home. And he hopes that despite the past, he'll be able to work with others on "issues of common concern." Noting that four Oakland police officers were shot two days before he was announced as the new bishop, Cordileone said, "Maybe in God's scheme of things, he was sending me a signal that inner-city violence is something we need to be organizing our people around. I'm not saying that God made that happen, I'm just saying that's a sign of the times."

According to Dion Aroner, a former East Bay assemblywoman who now works as a lobbyist on liberal causes, most politicians and community organizers are professional enough to focus on the issues they have in common with Bishop Cordileone. "When you collaborate with different organizations, it doesn't mean you agree on everything," she said. "It means you agree on the issue you're collaborating on. Having said that, my presumption is for certain organizations in our community it would be very hard to sit down at the table with the bishop, if it's true that he was a leader in this movement. "

Rebecca Kaplan, a lesbian member of the Oakland City Council, agrees that she, too, will try to work with the new bishop. "The scripture makes quite clear that hatred or prejudice toward the stranger is the worst sin. But the fact that he has committed that sin will not prevent me from working with him, because I believe in working with everybody."

But then Kaplan learned what Bishop Cordileone had to say at the end of his interview on the A Body of Truth show. As the show was winding down, Bishop Sal mused upon gay marriage one last time. "The ultimate attack of the Evil One is the attack on marriage," he said. "If you take marriage apart, everything comes unraveled. It's been frayed at the edges, and now moving more and more toward the center. But you take marriage out, it all comes unraveled. It all comes tumbling down. And again, the evangelicals, they understand that. They understand this is an attack of the Evil One at the core institution."

When Kaplan heard that, she hissed, "My great-grandparents were rounded up and put in Nazi prison camps by people who used that sort of language."

Recently, Cordileone clarified those remarks. "I do believe that evil exists outside of people's minds," he said. "What I was saying, there is, we have to be spiritually aware that society is decaying. I know that people on the other side are people of good faith. ... I don't think they're consciously working for evil."

And so, when gay men and lesbians and their friends and families lay down their heads at night, they can rest easy. Because somewhere in the grand new cathedral on the shores of Lake Merritt, the new bishop of Oakland doesn't think they're consciously working for evil.

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