A Democratic candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates has been asked to resign from the parish council at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Bethesda because he supports abortion rights.
John A. Hurson, a Bethesda lawyer, is the first Roman Catholic political candidate in the Archdiocese of Washington to be disciplined by a parish priest for espousing views on abortion contrary to those held by the church, according to a church spokesman.
The Montgomery County district in which Hurson is running already contains a hotly contested state Senate race that hinges largely on the abortion issue, which dominated the 1990 session of the General Assembly.
The disciplinary action comes after last month's suggestion by Cardinal John O'Connor, archbishop of New York, that Roman Catholic officeholders who support the right to abortion could be excommunicated.
Hurson said yesterday that he was asked last week by Monsignor William F. O'Donnell to resign from the parish council, an organization of lay members that assists and advises the clergy in the operation of the parish. Hurson said there was no threat of more stringent sanctions from the church.
Hurson, 36, who twice has unsuccessfully sought a state House seat, said he plans to announce today his response to the priest's request. "As a Catholic, I want to be able to fully participate in my church," he added.
O'Donnell said he removed Hurson from the church panel after being given copies of Hurson's campaign literature that identified him as "pro-choice" on abortion and a member of the parish council. "That left me no alternative," O'Donnell said. "He knew the rules. He knew it was incompatible."
In this case, O'Donnell said, the fact that Hurson held a leadership position in the church and had publicized it in campaign leaflets was "critical" to the decision to remove him from the council.
Hurson said that such disciplinary actions can have a chilling effect on Catholics who want to serve in public office while holding views on abortion different from the church.
"I thought this was settled 30 years ago with John Kennedy -- that Catholic officeholders have to follow the dictates of their own conscience," Hurson said.
Although O'Donnell said Hurson already had been removed from the council, Hurson said he may seek some sort of appeal, noting that Cardinal James A. Hickey is the ultimate authority for the archdiocese.
But Wilbur Pinder, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said the action was a pastoral decicion that can be handled at the parish level. "It's not an appeal because Mr. Hurson knows that his position takes a position contrary to the teaching of the church," Pinder said. "His pastor suggested that it would be good for him to resign and . . . it's within his purview to do that."
Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, said yesterday that such disciplinary actions against Catholic politicians nationwide are becoming more frequent.
"In one sense they backfire. They tend to garner sympathy for the person who has been penalized and anger toward the church for the heavy-handed nature of the way they are handled," Kissling said.
The actions also can help some candidates to generate publicity, Kissling said. "It's almost like an unsolicited campaign contribution in another sense," Kissling added.
Hurson is one of nine Democrats running for the three delegate slots in the 18th District, which contains Kensington, Wheaton and parts of Bethesda and Silver Spring. He is aligned with Del. Patricia R. Sher, an abortion-rights advocate who is challenging longtime ally Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut (D-Montgomery) in the September primary.
Schweinhaut was part of a 16-member coalition in the Senate that conducted an eight-day filibuster to block passage of abortion-rights legislation in the General Assembly.