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McKay Coppins: Defending the faith: How Archbishop Dolan is redefining the battle over same sex marriage

Published: Saturday, Oct. 29 2011 11:04 p.m. MDT

Born in St. Louis, the oldest of five children, he was drawn to the priesthood almost immediately and entered seminary at age 14. His charisma made him a rising star in the church, where he served as secretary for the pope's ambassador to the United States, and eventually ran the school for American Seminarians in Rome. When he was appointed to lead the archdiocese in Milwaukee, he made a name for himself by donning a Green Bay Packers cheesehead during Mass and joking about his beer preference. Years later, a profile in New York magazine dubbed him "the Archbishop of Charm."

Still, Archbishop Dolan takes his position seriously, and when the subject shifted that afternoon to New York's new marriage law, he grew somber.

"I fought hard, I prayed hard, I cooperated, I spoke, I advocated, I did everything I could," he said. "And I guess I'm the kind of guy that tends to blame himself, and I thought, 'What should I have done better?' "

Of course, it didn't help that plenty of New Yorkers were willing to answer that question for him.

"I got blasted from both sides," he recalled. "There were some on the left who would say, 'Dolan is hung up on this, he's turned into some kind of fanatical crusader ... but then I also got attacked from the right with people saying, 'He didn't do enough, he was playing hooky on this one.' "

As much as the loss still stings, Archbishop Dolan said he tries not to waste time on political postmortems. That question — what happens next? — is still weighing on him. And he's not the only one.

Six states have legalized same-sex marriage since 2004 — all through legislation or court orders — and in each case, the effort to redefine the union was met with ardent, organized opposition, typically led by religious groups. As the latest and largest state to make gay marriage the law of the land, New York provides a compelling case study for what happens to the traditional-marriage movement once its ideals are rejected by the ruling class.

If anyone is qualified to shed some light on the movement's next steps, it's Archbishop Dolan. As the ranking Catholic official in America's media capital, he has spent years on the front lines of the culture war, making the case for Christian family values — and earning plaudits from conservatives across the country.

Robert George, a Princeton professor of jurisprudence whom the New York Times has called "the country's most influential conservative Christian thinker," said Archbishop Dolan's leadership on the marriage issue is widely recognized.

"He is anything but timid," said George. "He has a love for people and a joy in his mission that enables him to speak truth to cultural power, even when others would be intimidated into silence."

To hear Archbishop Dolan tell it, that boldness is needed now more than ever. He believes the passage of New York's new marriage law was just the start to a series of legal fights and culture clashes that will consume both sides of the national marriage debate for years to come. And this time, he won't let anyone accuse him of playing hooky.

Religious freedom

As it's been framed, the debate over gay marriage has so far revolved around the rights of same-sex couples. But going forward, Archbishop Dolan said, he will work to shift the focus onto the First Amendment rights of the church — rights he fears are now in danger.

"One of our arguments has always been that people of principle who feel this violates their deepest-held convictions are going to be forced to the wall," Archbishop Dolan said. "We were told we were being Chicken Littles and that was ridiculous."

But "no sooner was the ink dry," he said, than priests throughout the state started coming to him with stories of couples threatening to sue if they didn't agree to rent out their parishes for same-sex weddings.

Richard Barnes, executive director of the New York Catholic Conference, said threats like those are unlikely to gain legal traction in the near future. A religious exemption in the New York marriage law specifically prohibits lawsuits against churches that refuse to provide their buildings or services for gay weddings. It also protects such religious organizations from being penalized by the state, through loss of aid to church welfare programs, for example.

But there are other areas where religious groups remain vulnerable in New York, said Barnes, and new battlefronts are revealing themselves every day.