A few weeks ago, CASA of Maryland and other immigration advocacy organizations formed an alliance with gay rights groups to urge passage of two hot-button initiatives on the Maryland ballot in November, one legalizing same-sex marriage and the other making some undocumented immigrants eligible for in-state tuition.
Elected officials joined them in making the announcement, which came as no surprise. The news media had been alerted days in advance.
But for Bishop Angel Nunez of the Bilingual Christian Church of Baltimore, a longtime CASA of Maryland ally, the news struck out of nowhere.
Nunez has long worked with CASA to promote immigrant causes, including the Dream Act in-state tuition initiative, but he strongly opposes same-sex marriage.
“Pastors are calling me up saying, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” he said, adding that he has been urging his 250 regular congregants, who hail from 23 nations, to vote for the Dream Act and against the Civil Marriage Protection Act.“I don’t know if I feel betrayed or not, but right now I’m confused.”
Typically, he said, he gets e-mails from CASA about its plans. But this time, Nunez said he didn’t know what CASA was up to until he read in the newspaper about the alliance, which also includes the prominent Latino advocacy group National Council of La Raza.
“No outreach got to us . . . to at least say, ‘I know we don’t agree on this, but this is what we’re doing,’ ” he said.
The alliance, according to its members, aims to enable champions of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and same-sex marriage to draw support from each other’s members at the ballot box. When announcing it, CASA cited an April report from the Pew Hispanic Center showing that 59 percent of Latinos think that homosexuality should be accepted by society. A report released by the National Council of La Raza and Social Science Research Solutions in April found that 54 percent of Hispanics in the country support same-sex marriage, a slightly higher percentage than the general population.
Experts say that younger Latinos and those whose families immigrated less recently are more likely to be open to same-sex marriage.
But many Latino religious leaders remain staunchly opposed to the referendum that would allow civil marriage for gay men and lesbians. The alliance has brought to the surface a conflict many Maryland Hispanics face between supporting an organization that has helped them in the past and going against deeply held religious beliefs.
And while many are eager to see the Dream Act pass, their enthusiasm does not translate to supporting the marriage equality referendum.
Calling Nunez “a huge leader in our community” and a longtime ally of his organization, Gustavo Torres, CASA’s executive director, said last week that the failure to inform him about the alliance was “totally an oversight.”
“We had conversations about this issue probably four or five months ago,” Torres said, “but I didn’t mention to him directly that I’m going to endorse Equality Maryland.”
A new survey from the Pew Research Center shows that a small majority of Latino Catholics support same-sex marriage, while a strong majority of Latino evangelicals oppose it. Just under 60 percent of Latinos in the United States are Catholic, and about 16 percent are evangelical Protestants, according to Pew.
Torres acknowledged that local Latino churches have overwhelmingly opposed CASA’s decision to support the same-sex marriage referendum. “We have an extraordinary partnership with many congregations on different issues, including fighting poverty, comprehensive immigration reform, and the Dream Act,” he said. “But on this particular issue we have differences, it’s true.”
Joseph Palacios, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University’s Center for Latin American Studies, said he suspected that some Latino Catholic priests, loath to alienate either side, were avoiding the issue in their sermons.
“They have gay people in their parishes [and] . . . so many single-parent households,” he said.
But Monsignor Mark Brennan, pastor of St. Martin of Tours, a Catholic church in Gaithersburg with 2,500 Hispanic congregants that has often worked with CASA on immigrant issues, said that his parishioners oppose the alliance.
“I think it’s really a big mistake on [CASA’s] part to join the two issues, which are quite distinct,” he said. “From what I’m hearing from my people, CASA’s stance offends them.”
Brennan said he did not know whether the rift would affect parishioners’ relations with CASA on other matters. “Immigrants are eminently practical people; I think they’ll be happy to accept their help on issues that they agree with them on,” he said. But, he added, “it could cause some re-evaluation in our community of ‘Hey, what’s CASA all about?’ ”
At the Iglesia Roca de la Eternidad, a Hispanic Pentecostal church in Landover Hills, the Rev. Heber D. Paredes delivered a fiery speech Friday night in Spanish blasting same-sex marriage, while a young man translated it to English for younger congregants.
“Why does man want to redefine what God already established?” Paredes yelled as the congregation nodded and clapped. “Man is not the inventor of marriage! God is!”
Many congregants there have received help over the years from CASA’s immigrant services, but several said they had no idea the organization had formed an alliance with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organizations.
“It surprises me,” said Maria Delgado, 30, of Hyattsville, who was attending services with her six children. “Because really they help people to work, they help people with families.”
Paredes, who has preached against the ballot measure for the past six weeks, said that supporting same-sex marriage strays outside of CASA’s mandate.
“They exist to help our community, and I don’t think that’s a help,” he said. “I’m surprised at CASA de Maryland; they know the Hispanic position on it.”
CASA has more than 27,000 members, and Paredes said he worries the organization will use its sway in the community to influence the vote. “They want to tie our young people to them,” he said.
Morena Burris, 48, the church’s administrator, agreed. “They do represent a lot of hope for Central and South Americans, so any time CASA de Maryland rallies for something, our community doesn’t question it,” she said.
In front of Nunez’s Baltimore church, where a large sign reads, “Don’t be fooled! Vote No Question 6. Marriage is always been one man one woman,” Nunez seemed saddened rather than angry over the rift with CASA.
“We’re part of the community that’s been there with them, that marched down to Washington with them,” he said. As to whether he will work with CASA in the future, he said, “We will probably see after the election.”
But Torres said he hoped the two sides would continue to work together on issues they agree on.
“There’s more that unites us than divides us,” he said.