'Waning influence' of Maryland Catholics?

I like the concept of a Washington Post story on the Maryland Senate's passage of a same-sex marriage bill.

I'm not in love with the execution of the piece, which focuses on Catholic lawmakers.

Read the story's opening, and it seems that the state's three top leaders are all devout Catholics, and all are bucking the church on the issue:

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley regularly attends a weekday Mass and has sent his four children to Catholic schools.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) used to teach and coach at his old Catholic high school in Annapolis.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) grew up serving as an altar boy in the idyllic wood-frame Catholic church his family helped build in Clinton.

But the presence of three Catholics at the helm in Annapolis hasn't stopped a same-sex marriage bill from wending its way through the legislature, triggering deep disappointment among church leaders as it suggests a waning of Catholic influence in this heavily Catholic state.

Not so fast, though. Keep reading, and the story gets a little more complicated. So much so that one wonders if the headline -- Md's top leaders cross Catholic hierarchy on gay marriage -- isn't a tad misleading. Or maybe a whole lot misleading.

To wit:

-- O'Malley has said he'll sign the bill if it reaches his desk. But far from advocating same-sex marriage, he seems to be willing to accept that terminology because he believes that "civil unions" should provide gays with the same legal protections as heterosexual couples:

"I'd be willing to sign any law that reaches me as long as it protects rights equally. I'm not going to get hung up on the words used to describe equal protection under the law."

-- Busch comes across as a nominal Catholic. He won't say how often he attends Mass and readily acknowledges that "I'm not a guy who makes every Sunday."

-- And Miller characterizes himself as "not a very good Catholic." Despite that, he actually voted against this particular bill. In fact, this is how a Baltimore Sun story describes him:

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, another opponent, also believes Marylanders would reject same-sex marriage at referendum, in part because the question would share the 2012 ballot with President Barack Obama's re-election.

Miller predicted that Obama's name will motivate two constituencies likely to oppose same-sex marriage: Conservatives voting against the president and blacks who supported Obama in record numbers two years ago.

How exactly is Miller -- as an opponent of the same-sex marriage bill -- bucking the Catholic hierarchy? This is how the Post explains it:

And although Miller voted against the bill in the Senate on Thursday, he had moved to head off a filibuster attempt by opponents so that it could move forward.

What was Miller's reasoning for heading off a filibuster? The story doesn't say.

Confused yet?

I did appreciate that the story gives all of the three top lawmakers an opportunity to discuss their Catholic backgrounds and how their religious beliefs inform -- and don't inform -- their politics. For instance, Miller points to his parents to explain one of his first high-profile breaks with the church in his 25-year tenure as Senate president:

In the early 1990s, Miller, a gregarious lawyer, presided over two grueling years of debate over abortion, siding with those who wanted to put protections for women into Maryland law in the event Roe v. Wade was repealed.

Miller said his mother told him that "it was a women's issue and that I needed to support the women."

Miller has since been a strong advocate on some issues affecting the Catholic Church, including a proposed tax credit to help bolster its schools. But he said he's "not a very good Catholic" despite regular attendance at churches in his district.

"I think we should have women for priests," he said. "I think there should be contraception to stop the spread of AIDs in Africa. I support capital punishment, and I'm pro-choice in the early stages of pregnancy."

Still, as I read the Post story, I kept looking for concrete details to back up the claim up high that the same-sex marriage bill's passing "suggests a waning of Catholic influence in this heavily Catholic state." But outside of this one vote in the state Senate, the story provides no context to back up that statement. No background is given to assess Catholic influence -- or not -- in the past. No facts are offered to indicate how exactly the reported influence has waned.

At the end of this 1,600-word piece, two things are clear: 1. Three top Maryland lawmakers have Catholic backgrounds. 2. The state Senate narrowly passed a same-sex marriage bill. But where the Catholic church fits in the bill's passage -- and in the state's political trends -- remains extremely murky. At least to me.

Agree? Disagree?

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