The Minnesota DVDs

December 10, 2011

The Minnesota Campaign Finance Board has ruled that the DVD-distribution campaign against marriage equality organized by Archbishop John Nienstedt, of St. Paul, did not require the archdiocese to register as a lobbyist.  The DVD was sent to over 400,000 Catholic households in Minnesota last year, a state which is now in the midst of a referendum campaign to adopt a constitutional amendment which would outlaw marriage for lesbian and gay couples.  Today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune contains a short article reporting on the Board’s decision:

“The board says the matter was not yet directly before state lawmakers or voters when the DVD went out, and therefore didn’t trigger political fund or lobbyist registration requirements.”

It seems that the Archbishop was exonerated on a technicality of timing.  Other evidence suggests a strong political motive for the DVD campaign, which took place during a hotly contested gubernatorial campaign, in which  support for marriage equality was an issue.  At the time of the DVD distribution, Nicole Sotelo, program director for Call To Action and a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, penned an insightful investigative piece on the political connections between the archbishop, the Knights of Columbus, and the National Organization for Marriage (NOM).  Her evidence for a political motivation for the DVD campaign is quite extensive:

“While the archbishop is careful not to mention the name of the gubernatorial candidate for whom he wishes Catholics would vote, there are a number of indicators that make it appear that this DVD was not merely a faith-based educational video sent to the faithful but rather a politically-influenced campaign tool supported by NOM and the Knights of Columbus:

    • On Sept. 19, Catholic News Agency reported that the archdiocese “brought in Maggie Gallagher, head of the National Organization for Marriage, to discuss strategies for opposing the redefinition of marriage.” Later, the article explained why: “The issue is relevant to the governor’s race in Minnesota. Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidate Mark Dayton supports same-sex ‘marriage,’ while Republican candidate Tom Emmer does not.”
    • On Sept. 22, NOM’s public relations firm issued a press release announcing it had launched a television ad supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. Their release reads: “Thirty-one other states have exercised their constitutional right to vote on marriage…. Mark Dayton and Tom Horner [the Independence Party candidate for governor] do not want the people of Minnesota to have any say.”
    • The release has remarkably similar wording to the DVD mailed to Catholic households the same week. In the video Nienstedt says: “Thirty-one states have passed marriage amendments and it is time for Minnesotans to have their say.” While Nienstedt takes care to not mention the political candidates, his sentence closely resembles that of the press release for NOM’s candidate.
    • The next line from the archbishop in the DVD is: “A question as important as the future of this great social institution should not be decided by a ruling elite, but by the people of Minnesota themselves…. Let the people speak!”
    • A television ad supporting Emmer that NOM aired the same week, titled ‘Most Important Civil Right,’ includes this line: “Shouldn’t something this important be decided by Minnesota voters, not politicians?…. Let the people vote!”
    • As Nienstedt speaks the lines that mirror those provided by NOM in other settings, sitting over the archbishop’s shoulder in the camera’s frame is a strategically-placed Knights of Columbus hat . . . “

While the archbishop does not explicitly call on Catholics to vote for Republican candidate Tom Emmer, he does not have to do so. Any Catholic Minnesotan who watches the archbishop’s DVD and the candidate’s television ad — both issued in the same week — receives a one-two punch and knows exactly who the archbishop is championing. “

Earlier this week, the former presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America suggested to the bishops of Minnesota that they take a more pastoral and less political approach to the marriage equality debate by meeting with lesbian and gay people to learn of their experience.  Will Archbishop Nienstedt’s close call with almost being charged with explicit political involvement motivate him to take this approach?  We hope so, though we also hope that he and the other Minnesotan bishops would so out of a different motivation:  the deep pastoral need that exists in our church for dialogue with the bishops on LGBT issues.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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