Joining Forces to Battle Same-Sex Marriage: Bishops' Conference, Religious Right Fund Project That Critics Call an Attack Effort against Gays

Article excerpt

From his cluttered fourth floor office at Catholic University's Columbus School of Law, a half mile from the offices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Professor Robert Destro occupies a key post in the nation's culture wars. Destro, a controversial Reagan-appointee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in the 1980s, serves as principal investigator of the Catholic University of America-based Marriage Law Project, the core mission of which is to provide "legal assistance to church-related organizations" that support traditional marriage.

The Marriage Law Project came to the marriage debate relatively early. Founded in 1996, it worked with church-based groups to oppose same-sex marriage initiatives in Hawaii and Alaska and helped draft "defense of marriage acts" at the state and federal levels. Most recently, the project has been active in Massachusetts where it "coordinated submission of 15 amicus briefs" to the state's Supreme Court prior to the court's ruling in support of same-sex marriage.

Since its inception, the project has had support--financial and otherwise--from the U.S. bishops, the Mormon church (the project's director, William Duncan, is paid jointly by Brigham Young University's Law School and the Marriage Law Project), and a consortium of conservative evangelical ministries that have made opposition to same-sex marriage a top public policy goal. Over the next three years, for example, the Marriage Law Project will receive $260,000 from the Alliance Defense Fund--a public policy advocacy group founded by such stalwarts of the religious right as Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, Campus Crusade for Christ, and Coral Ridge Ministries.

In the eight years since its founding, said Destro, the project has gained a reputation for quality research and analysis. "I'm a lawyer and I'm a scholar and that's what we do," said Destro. "People don't come to you and rely on you if you don't give them valuable stuff," he said. "People on the other side of this issue take us seriously because we're honest."

Not all of the group's opponents agree.

"Their role has been to try to give the veneer of scholarship and objectivity onto what is really an attack effort to cement discrimination against gay couples into the law," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of New York-based Freedom to Marry.

Destro scoffs at the notion that the Marriage Law Project is part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy."

The project's annual budget, said Destro, is "a lot less than you would think," but he declined to provide specifics and the numbers aren't publicly available. In addition to the Alliance Defense Fund contributions, the project is funded through a combination of private donations (some of which, said Destro, "have been very, very generous"), in-kind contributions from Catholic University (which provides rent-free space and use of its legal research facilities), support from the Mormon church, and annual grants from the bishops' conference.

Over the next three years, according to budget documents released at the bishops' November 2003 meeting, the bishops' conference will provide the Marriage Law Project with $60,000. A like amount appears to have been contributed by the conference over the previous three years, though documentation is fuzzy. The conference's 2001-02 audited financial statements note that $20,000 was provided annually to Catholic University, but does not specify its purpose. A conference spokesperson declined to clarify how much the bishops have provided to the project.

Project staff provided a heads up to the bishops about possible reaction to their work in a July 2003 report. "It can be expected that the location of the Marriage Law Project at [Catholic University of America] may become a controversial issue for some CUA faculty and staff members," said a July 2003 report to the bishops. …