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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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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.

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