Cardinal O’Malley Shifts Course on Signature Gathering for Anti-Abortion-Funding Petition at Churches

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Activists trying to get a referendum on the ballot that would allow the state to stop public funding of abortions can now collect signatures at Roman Catholic churches in the Boston area, a reversal of a policy announced this past June.

The new policy comes with restrictions:  Signature gatherers aren’t supposed to be in the direct flow of foot traffic to and from Mass.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, released a letter late this week announcing the change. The letter mentions various ballot initiatives without specifying any of them, and leaves it up to individual pastors whether to allow signature gathering at a particular parish.

O’Malley cited “the importance of these efforts” to justify the change in policy, without specifying which efforts.

But the move appears aimed at the effort to bring a proposed constitutional amendment before Massachusetts voters that would make it clear that the state constitution does not require the state government to pay for abortions. If approved, the measure would overturn a 1981 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that requires the state to fund abortions for poor women.

On June 1, the four diocesan bishops of Massachusetts announced a ban on signature gathering for ballot petitions on church property, which changed the previous practice of allowing pastors to decide. The bishops cited objections from certain church-goers and a desire to avoid politicizing Mass.

O’Malley came in for heavy criticism of the ban in September from several prominent pro-lifers, who saw the ban as a betrayal. They also pointed out his appearances in public in recent years with prominent politicians who support legal abortion and funding for abortion. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that elective abortion is the unjustified taking of a human life.

O’Malley’s new policy tweaks the ban.

Signature gathering must take place at a designated location(s) on the property away from the flow of parishioners approaching or departing Holy Mass. The location shall be determined by the Pastor. It is suggested that location(s) such as Church halls, school auditoriums, rectories, special events should be considered by the Pastor,” O’Malley’s letter states, with emphasis in the original.

While the June 1 ban represented all four Catholic dioceses in Massachusetts, O’Malley’s letter modifying the ban applies only to the Archdiocese of Boston, which includes Suffolk County, Middlesex County, Essex County, Norfolk County, and almost all of Plymouth County.

Organizers of the abortion funding referendum need 64,750 certified signatures of registered voters in Massachusetts by December 6 to keep the ballot question alive. But organizers want to collect at least 100,000 because town clerks typically disqualify many signatures because they are illegible, or the person who signed isn’t registered to vote, or the forms are deemed unacceptable because of stray marks or defacements.

Thomas Harvey, executive director of Alliance To Stop Taxpayer Funding of Abortion, which is spearheading the signature drive, said O’Malley’s change of heart should help his campaign.

“We are very pleased with the change. This should greatly help our pro-life effort. The way some churches are situated, surrounded by their parking lots, the prior policy had made it almost impossible to collect any signatures there. So the change is a big boost and adds to our momentum,” Harvey said in an email message to New Boston Post. “We hope all the Massachusetts dioceses will follow Cardinal O’Malley’s lead on this.”

Chanel Prunier, chairman of the Renew MA Coalition, a sponsor of the petition, also sounded a positive note.

“With four weekends to go our signature drive is gaining steam; we’re excited by the grassroots support we’re seeing all across the Commonwealth. Volunteers are getting a great reception at grocery stores, post offices, malls, and from faith communities, including Catholics. We encourage everyone to get involved by visiting our website: and signing up to volunteer,” Prunier said in an email message.

A spokesman for O’Malley could not immediately be reached for comment.