Mitt's Myths

Politicians, particularly in the heat of an election contest, often fudge the facts. That’s no surprise, and there is no end of media outlets and advocacy groups — of varying reliability, to be sure — who put on a full court press ferreting out the “truthiness” of debate pronouncements, stump speeches, and campaign websites.

Sometimes it’s child’s play to demonstrate that a candidate’s claim is a flat-out falsehood, though even then it’s not always easy to prove the candidate knowingly deceived voters.

But every once in a while, a politician says something untrue where the evidence is unmistakable that they knew they were lying.

During a Republican presidential debate on January 7, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker — amidst a rant about what the news media is ignoring — asked, “Should the Catholic Church be forced to close its adoption services in Massachusetts because it won’t accept gay couples, which is exactly what the state has done?”

Catholic Charities of Boston had, in fact, elected to end its adoption services in 2006 after Massachusetts officials made clear that its decision to specifically bar adoptions by gay people ran afoul of state law. Gingrich was on a roll making the claim the Obama administration pursues a policy of “anti-Christian bigotry,” and didn’t pause to fill out the details of what went down in Boston.

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, was not about to be one-upped in grandstanding an issue from his own home state, so he jumped into the fray to embellish Gingrich’s story.

“The people in this room feel that Speaker Gingrich is absolutely right and I do too. And — and I was in a state where the Supreme Court stepped in and said marriage is a relationship required under the Constitution for — for people of the same sex to be able to marry… And — and it did exactly as Speaker Gingrich indicated. What happened was Catholic Charities, that placed almost half of all of the adoptive children in our state, was forced to step out of being able to provide adoptive services… We have to recognize that — that this decision about what we call marriage has consequence which goes far beyond a loving couple wanting to form a long-term relationship that they can do within the law now. Calling it a marriage creates a whole host of problems for — for families, for the law, for — for — for the practice of — of religion, for education.”

For voters who abhor the idea of gay and lesbian couples marrying, that’s a great story. Activist judges step in, impose gay marriage on a state in 2003, and the next thing you know, Christians are not allowed to pursue their mission to place orphans in adoptive homes.

In fact, the story is right out of the playbook of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), a leader in the fight to push back on any form of partner recognition for same-sex couples.

The problem is that the story is not true. Not in any respect. And Mitt Romney, who was in the thick of the battle over Catholic Charities’ adoption service, knows that full well.

As a public adoption service, the Catholic Charities operation qualified as a “public accommodation” under state human rights law. From the time that sexual orientation protections were added to that law in 1989, the adoption service had the obligation to accept gay prospective parents. The Church had simply never before complained about that.

Marc Solomon, the national campaign manager at Freedom to Marry, was in Boston during the period when marriage equality began and the adoption issue played out, first as a volunteer at the Massachusetts Freedom to Marry Coalition, then as political director at Mass Equality, and later as the head of that group. Solomon said that the NOM-Romney myth about gay adoptions is a relatively new framing of the argument against marriage equality.

“In one sense, this is good — they are no longer debating the fundamentals of the issue,” he said. “Their strategy is to find the unknown that you can scare people with now. They warn that there are unintended consequences. It’s going to hurt the kids, it will affect churches.”

What happened in Boston in 2006 bears no relationship to what the enemies of marriage equality would have voters believe.

Catholic Charities, which had been in the adoption business for decades, had on occasion placed children with gay parents. According to a blog post by Laura Kiritsy, the former editor of Bay Windows, Boston’s LGBT newspaper, who is now with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, that practice blew up in October 2005 when the Boston Globe reported that in the previous two decades, 13 of the 720 adoptions were by gay and lesbian parents. Father J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities, told the newspaper, “If we could design the system ourselves, we would not participate in adoptions to gay couples, but we can’t. We have to balance various goods.”

According to Kiritsy, the Church first took action when the state’s four bishops “got wind” of that adoption data. Meanwhile, the Globe’s disclosure that the Worcester diocese referred gay couples elsewhere prompted the State Department of Social Services to investigate. Church and state were on a collision course.

Romney claimed that Catholic Charities accounted for half of the adoptions in Massachusetts, but Solomon said the number was closer to five percent. The Globe reported that only four percent of Catholic Charities’ revenues were spent on adoption services.

Five months after the Globe story appeared, Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, abruptly announced that Catholic Charities would end its adoption program rather than comply with the nondiscrimination provisions of state human rights law. According to the Globe, O’Malley and Hehir had appealed to Romney for a state law waiver but were told he lacked authority to grant one.

Once the cardinal announced the shutdown, however, Romney wasted no time in calling for legislation to provide religious exemptions. According to Solomon, that effort was dead on arrival in the Legislature.

O’Malley’s decision reflected the determination of the Church hierarchy, but certainly was not the consensus among those Catholics committed to maintaining adoption opportunities in Boston. Catholic Charities’ 42-member board had voted unanimously to comply with state law. When the cardinal “big-footed” the board, in the words of one member who spoke to Gay City News, more than half a dozen board members, including the chairman, resigned in protest.

According to one of the members who resigned, the outrage voiced by the state’s bishops when the Globe story broke in 2005 was largely for show. Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop forced out in the wake of the child abuse scandal, knew about the gay adoptions for years, that source said. O’Malley, too, learned of them within a year or so of replacing Law in 2003.

O’Malley, the board member said, had no appetite for the adoption battle — the order came down from the Vatican. By then, Law had been reassigned to Rome, and he went there with a chip on his shoulder about Catholic Charities. Voice of the Faithful, a lay Catholic organization that emerged in 2002 to support child abuse victims and to prod what they saw as an unresponsive hierarchy, made a donation to Catholic Charities, much to Law’s consternation.

How much of the Church backstory Romney was privy to is unknown, but as the public drama unfolded, he was in the room, so to speak, every step of the way. He cannot plausibly say today that gay marriage had anything to do with the adoption issue — unless the connection is that the Church hierarchy purposely picked this fight right in the midst of its nearly all-consuming push to roll back equal marriage rights.

“The [Church] leadership in Boston was clearly under orders to do everything to prevent the legitimacy of gay marriage,” Solomon recalled, though he could not say whether O’Malley and the Vatican tried to amp up emotions over the marriage question by taking their uncompromising posture on adoptions.

With Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, accusing Romney of having been soft of the danger of gay marriage as governor, it’s not surprising that Romney talks about what happened in Massachusetts in hyperbolic terms.

But Santorum is simply wrong.

“From my vantage point, he pulled out all the stops,” Solomon said of Romney. From the time of the 2003 ruling, “he was unalterably opposed and he did everything he could to stop gay marriage short of not following the law.”

Through a series of constitutional conventions where the Legislature sat in joint session to consider a variety of amendment efforts to overturn the marriage ruling, Romney pushed to prevent any partner recognition of gay and lesbian couples. When for strategic reasons he told his allies to vote for a civil union “compromise,” he had to “hold his nose,” Solomon said.

In the six months between the marriage ruling and the beginning of weddings, Romney wanted to ask the high court to delay the effective date to give the Legislature the required two consecutive sessions to consider constitutional amendments. The Democratic attorney general declined to go to court with that motion, so Romney asked the Legislature to appoint a special counsel, but he was rebuffed there as well.

He next tried to defeat gay marriage at the polls, endorsing 134 candidates in the state’s 200 Senate and House districts, which had overwhelmingly Democratic representation. In an election in which every incumbent won, no non-incumbent running from Romney’s “Team Reform” succeeded.

“It was a colossal failure, an embarrassment for Romney,” Solomon said.

The governor also aggressively employed an archaic law from 1913 that said couples from out of state could not marry in Massachusetts if their marriage would not be legal where they lived. No matter that the statute had an ugly history — enacted to keep the state from becoming a wedding refuge for interracial couples from locales with anti-miscegenation laws — the governor trumpeted the power it gave him, saying, “Massachusetts should not become the Las Vegas of gay marriage.”

Romney’s fight against the 2003 marriage equality victory lasted until his final days in office in January 2007. Armed with a Supreme Judicial Court ruling that scolded the Legislature but did not specifically order it to take a vote on yet another constitutional amendment — this one originating from a voter petition — Romney bullied a joint session to act. Since the effort came from voters directly, marriage equality advocates needed 75 percent of the 200 legislators to forestall a referendum. They fell short, winning only 137 votes versus 62 supporting the referendum.

Fortunately, a referendum does not make it onto the Massachusetts ballot unless it is approved in two consecutive legislative sessions. Without the stalwart support of the House and Senate Democratic leaders and the new governor, Deval Patrick, also a Democrat, marriage might not have been saved in Massachusetts. In June 2007, the amendment efforts were finally laid to rest in a 151-45 vote.

If steadfast opposition characterized Romney’s response to marriage equality, his LGBT record otherwise was decidedly inconsistent, according to Solomon. In his 1994 challenge to Senator Ted Kennedy, he famously claimed he would be the stronger ally of the LGBT community. Eight years later, as a candidate for governor, his campaign distributed flyers at Boston’s gay pride celebration voicing support for civil rights protections based on “sexual preference” — a phrase, Solomon noted with a grin, long out of vogue in the LGBT community.

Romney’s presidential campaign now claims that the 2002 flyer was not authorized by the candidate. And yet, in the January 8 “Meet the Press” debate, the former Massachusetts governor said, “If people are looking for someone who — who will discriminate against gays or will in any way try and suggest that people that have different sexual orientation don’t have full rights in this country, they won’t find that in me.”

Asked in a follow up when he last “stood up and spoke out for increasing gay rights?,” Romney responded, “Right now.”

Romney’s record, however, clearly suggests that he tacks with the political winds on LGBT questions. In 2006, his last year as governor, when he was already traveling frequently to build his national profile, he was faced with renewing the mandate for the Governor’s Commission on GLBT Youth. That commission was established in 1992 by Republican Governor William Weld in response to an epidemic of suicides, and its powers were expanded by Weld’s GOP successor, Paul Cellucci. Romney himself had several times extended its life.

Late on a Friday afternoon in early 2006, the governor abruptly announced the commission would be disbanded. Liz Malia, an out lesbian Democratic state representative from Boston’s Jamaica Plain, recalled rushing to the governor’s office and demanding to see Romney. After a wait of several hours, she was finally greeted by a press flak close to the governor, but never got an answer about why the commission had been junked. By July, the Legislature had enacted a state commission to replace the body Romney eliminated.

What does Romney’s wild inconsistency on gay rights presage for his prospects as president?

Solomon noted that he has signed NOM’s radical marriage pledge committing to defend DOMA, enact a constitutional ban on marriage equality nationwide, appoint Supreme Court justices who reject the right of gay couples to marry, and establish a presidential commission to investigate harassment of those battling against marriage equality.

“I think it goes without saying he is no Barack Obama on LGBT issues,” Solomon said. “It’s really night and day.”

He added, however, that looking for glimmers of “hope comes with the territory of having worked on marriage equality for a decade.” Above all, Solomon said, “Romney is ideologically flexible.”

Representative Malia expressed much the same view in a less charitable manner.

“My belief is that his actions are purely political on almost every issue,” she said. “He never had a position that he wouldn’t change for political reasons.”