GILLETTE, Wyo. – Leah Vader and Lynne Huskinson, a lesbian couple who were married in Canada last August, sent a letter recently to their state legislator decrying a Wyoming bill that would deny recognition of same-sex marriages. The lawmaker read the letter on the floor of the Legislature.
It wasn't long after that that the couple received a notice from their parish church telling them they have been barred from receiving Communion.
"If all this stuff hadn't hit the newspaper, it wouldn't have been any different than before — nobody would have known about it," said the couple's parish priest at St. Matthew's, the Rev. Cliff Jacobson. "The sin is one thing. It's a very different thing to go public with that sin."
Catholics deemed sinners in the eyes of the church are sometimes taken aside and privately advised not to take Communion. But Cheyenne Bishop David Ricken, gay Catholic organizations and a national church spokeswoman said they could not recall any previous instance of a U.S. bishop denying the sacrament to a gay couple in writing.
Now Huskinson and Vader say they are struggling to reconcile their devotion to the church with their devotion to each other.
"You spend half your time defending your gayness to Catholics," Vader said, "and the other half of your time defending your Catholicism to gays."
The couple, who regularly attended Mass and took Communion, have not been back to St. Matthew's since they received the letter a month and a half ago. Vader said they did not want to make a scene.
The 46-year-old newlyweds — Vader is a supervisor at a recycling center, Huskinson a coal miner — ran afoul of a sort of don't-ask-don't-tell policy on the church's part.
"I told my wife in good conscience that if I had known those ladies, and we'd have been having a beer, I'd have just told them to keep everything to themselves," parish music director John Chick said. He added that once news like this hits the papers, "someone's forced to deal with it now, aren't they?"
The parish priest said that after the couple put their engagement and marriage announcements in the local paper, he ran reminders of the church's teachings in the parish bulletin as a warning.
After the Ash Wednesday story, the priest sent this letter: "It is with a heavy heart, in obedience to the instruction of Bishop David Ricken, that I must inform you that, because of your union and your public advocacy of same-sex unions, that you are unable to receive Communion."
The bishop said the couple's sex life constitutes a grave sin, "and the fact that it became so public, that was their choice."
Last fall, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops overwhelmingly approved new guidelines that say parishes should welcome gays while telling them to be celibate because the church considers their sexuality "disordered." The bishops said that anyone who knowingly persists in sinful behavior, such as gay sex or using artificial contraception, should refrain from taking Communion.
Professor Carl Raschke, chairman of religious studies at the University of Denver, said of the Cheyenne bishop's decision: "It's no more surprising that the Catholic Church would deny Communion to an openly gay couple than a Muslim mosque would deny access to somebody who ate pork."
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the church allows local bishops to handle decisions on who may take Communion, so there is no record of how many have been barred from receiving the sacrament.
Walsh said most cases she has heard of involved public figures. During the 2004 presidential campaign, the St. Louis archbishop Raymond Burke said he would deny Communion to John Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights.
Vader said the couple never made any secret of their relationship. She pointed to statuettes of two kissing Dutch girls in front of their single-wide trailer home. She also said that the couple posed for a church directory family photo with Vader's children from a previous marriage, and that the church has sent mail to both of them at the same address for years.
Huskinson questioned why Catholics having premarital sex and using birth control are not barred from receiving Communion, too. But the parish priest said the difference is this: The other Catholics are "not going around broadcasting, 'Hey I'm having sex outside of marriage' or 'I'm using birth control."'