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Hope and prayer: California churches battle abortion ballot measure

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento on Sept. 12, 2022. Catholic churches are leading the opposition to a ballot measure on abortion rights.
Rahul Lal
The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento on Sept. 12, 2022. Catholic churches are leading the opposition to a ballot measure on abortion rights.

From the pulpit of the bright and airy Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove, Father Bao Thai delivered a homily on a recent Sunday morning, urging his congregation to vote against Proposition 1, a measure on the Nov. 8 ballot that would enshrine the right to abortion in California’s constitution.

“A steward is entrusted to care for the master’s property until his return,” he preached. “What precious goods has the creator placed in our care? Do they include the innocent and sacred lives of the unborn and children to be born?”

A few weeks earlier, at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Pacifica, two congregants spoke at weekend masses to ask attendees to support the campaign against the “harmful” Prop. 1 with prayers, fasting and money.


Bishops and other clergy from California’s dozen Catholic dioceses and archdioceses — spanning Sacramento to Fresno, Monterey to San Bernardino — have released videos to speak directly to the faithful, sometimes in multiple languages, about their concerns that the initiative would remove all existing restrictions on abortion in the state.

“Life is precious from the very moment of conception,” Father Michael Mahoney of Our Lady of Angels Parish in Burlingame said in a recent message filmed at the site of a future parish garden, where he encouraged families to take home “No Prop 1” signs for their yards. “This is against everything that we believe in as Catholics.”

Fundraising by the opposition campaign is trailing significantly, in a state where a clear majority of adults regularly express support for abortion rights. So the success of a long-shot effort to defeat Prop. 1 may rest primarily on outreach by faith leaders and their ability to mobilize followers from the pews to the polls.

About a month before Election Day, as mail ballots are set to begin arriving at the homes of every registered voter in California, officials across several major denominations are tapping into their networks of worshippers to get the word out against the abortion measure. Meanwhile, some conservative faith-based political groups are organizing voters to involve their churches in the campaign. Though not legally allowed to endorse partisan candidates because of their tax-exempt status, churches can advocate on issues, including ballot measures.

Fighting an ‘egregious expansion’ of abortion


The most significant push so far has come from the Catholic Church. Over the summer, it started training clergy and parishioners, registering voters and developing educational resources about Prop. 1, which it calls the “most egregious expansion of abortion this country has ever seen.”

A novena led by the California bishops — nine days of prayer to Our Lady of the Holy Rosary for the defeat of the initiative — began Thursday, ahead of Respect Life Month during October, an annual Catholic program to advocate against abortion and support women dealing with unexpected pregnancies.

Nearly one in three Californians is Catholic, providing the church an immense platform from which to try to shift the tide on Prop. 1. An August poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found 71% of registered voters were prepared to support the measure.

Kathleen Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, the state public policy office of the church, said even Catholic leaders are divided on whether they have a real chance to defeat Prop. 1. But they are undertaking a serious organizing effort regardless, she said, because it also presents an opportunity to get more people involved in their regular activities serving needy women, children and families.

“Win or lose, there’s benefit in the process,” she said. “It’s never a bad thing to get people thinking about vulnerable people in their communities.”

Wide gap in fundraising

The main opposition campaign to Prop. 1 stresses that its coalition is broader than faith-based organizations.

And its arguments against the measure are entirely secular: The campaign dismisses Prop. 1, placed on the ballot by the Legislature, as a cynical attempt by Democrats to boost voter turnout that is unnecessary to guarantee abortion access in California, where the procedure is already protected by law.

Opponents also raise concerns that the broad language of the initiative (“The state shall not deny or interfere with an individual’s reproductive freedom in their most intimate decisions”) would override all existing restrictions, allowing abortions past the current limit when a fetus is viable outside the womb at around 24 weeks and putting taxpayers on the hook as people come to California from other states seeking to terminate their pregnancies.

Yes on Proposition 1 spokesperson Molly Weedn said the characterization that the measure would remove all abortion restrictions in California is false. “That is a lot of misinformation and fear-mongering from the opposition,” she said. “The initiative is simply going to take existing law and add it to the constitution.”

Catherine Hadro, a spokesperson for California Together, No on Proposition 1, said that while the campaign is grateful for the assistance from religious leaders, it is targeting its communications to all Californians. She said opponents can see the momentum against Prop. 1 growing with a rise in grassroots donations.

“We know this is a message that resonates with Californians, no matter their faith,” she said.

But spreading that message through traditional electoral methods, such as digital advertising and mailers, has been challenging. The campaign has reported raising $1.1 million so far, most of it in the final week of September. Hadro declined to discuss the specifics of the opposition strategy.

A separate effort, led by groups affiliated with the evangelical Christian movement, has raised about $73,000.

“There’s no more trusting, effective way to get that message out than from the pulpit.”
Tanner Dibella, President of the American Council

Proponents of Prop. 1, by comparison, have reported $11.8 million in contributions, including a $5 million donation by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.

The measure was also recently endorsed by Catholics For Choice, a national nonprofit that advocates for abortion access and other policies in conflict with church doctrine. In a statement, President Jamie Manson said “the bishops’ radical anti-choice views are wildly out-of-step with the majority of the people in their own pews.”

A July survey by Pew Research Center found that Catholics in the United States are split on abortion, with a majority now agreeing that the procedure should be legal in most or all cases — though more than two-thirds of regular mass attendees believe it should be illegal in most or all cases.

“This faithful pro-choice majority supports abortion access because it aligns with our Catholic social justice values of human dignity, justice for the poor and marginalized, and religious freedom — not in spite of our Catholic faith, but because of it,” Manson said.

‘A culture of death’

Nearly 60% of what the No on Prop. 1 campaign has reported raising so far comes from the Catholic Church and affiliated donors, including $500,000 from the Knights of Columbus, a national Catholic fraternal organization. Officials at its Connecticut headquarters did not respond to an interview request.

Priests, deacons and other church employees, largely in Orange County, have directly donated $20,000 to the campaign. Another $105,000 so far has come from the California Catholic Conference and half a dozen of the dioceses and archdioceses, which Domingo said are in-kind contributions for the extensive work that the church has done on its No on Prop 1 campaign.

That includes developing bilingual fliers and pew cards in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean to distribute at masses, as well as suggested weekly bulletin announcements (“Don’t hand lawmakers a blank check to pay for abortions, and don’t let them make California an ‘abortion sanctuary’”) and homily helps for pastors that recommend readings from the Bible and how to connect them to Prop. 1 (“the abortion industry has been as clever as a fox in its self-interest, like the dishonest steward who acted to preserve his income by immorally manipulating his master’s debtors, at the master’s expense”).

Bishops and other high-ranking clergy from across the state are making their own direct appeals to Catholic voters in video messages that amount to campaign advertisements. Though often framed within religious reflections, their arguments are also largely focused on what they consider to be the extreme implications of Prop. 1, which they believe would allow abortions until the moment of birth without exception. Some have compared the measure to human rights violations in North Korea and challenged parishioners to bring their pro-abortion rights friends into the campaign against the initiative by educating them about what it “actually does.”

“We rejoiced in the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade in June, but we are now faced with the proposal to make abortion permanently legal without any restrictions in our state constitution,” Bishop Alberto Rojas of the Diocese of San Bernardino said in a video. “This doesn’t affirm the duty and value of the life that God has given us. It promotes a culture of death.”

Father Bruce Patterson, episcopal vicar for priests in the Diocese of Orange, invoked the Parable of the Prodigal Son to reflect on how Catholics could change minds and win the “uphill battle” of ending abortion by not treating their opponents as enemies.

“To ever persuade them, we need to apply the same patience, love and clarity that the father used to retrieve his lost and disarm his angry son,” Patterson said. “In doing so, we must remind ourselves that many who support abortion are, like St. Paul, acting out of ignorance and, yes, they remain our brothers and sisters.”

CalMatters reached out to Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and Bishops Jaime Soto of the Diocese of Sacramento, Kevin Vann of the Diocese of Orange and Daniel Garcia of the Diocese of Monterey, who were identified in a July memorandum as the leadership team for the Catholic campaign against Prop. 1.

Representatives for Soto and Garcia did not return numerous calls and emails. Representatives for Cordileone and Vann initially expressed a willingness to connect CalMatters with diocesan leaders active in the campaign, but subsequently declined because they were told to direct all inquiries through Domingo of the California Catholic Conference.

Soto, who gave $1,000 to the No on Prop. 1 campaign, introduced the second day of the novena on Friday. In a video, he said that the initiative “demeans women and destroys all human nature” and called on Catholics to “translate the gospel of life by our own living testimony.”

“The taking of an innocent human life should never be the solution to a problem. Freedom should not be defined by violence against the innocent,” Soto said. “Consider carefully, then, the moral and social costs of allowing the language of Proposition 1 to be embedded in the state constitution.”

Domingo said the church’s political engagement has been more extensive in this election because preventing abortions of “viable unborn children” is “something that’s dear to us.” She said it was important to “help people understand that common sense should prevail” over the “open-ended expansion of late-term abortion in California.”

“There’s a lot of value to people of faith speaking about issues that we believe strongly in,” she said. “And in this particular issue, we know that the majority of people in California and the majority of the people in the U.S. agree with us.”

Evangelical churches organizing

Other faith communities in the state have also begun outreach against Prop. 1 through their networks, though none is yet as extensive as the Catholic Church’s campaign. Many of the leaders recognize that they face long odds to stop the measure, but say they feel a moral imperative to fight to uphold what limits still remain on abortion in California.

“For many of us who have a Biblical view, this is very alarming,” said Tanner DiBella, president of The American Council, an organization he founded two years ago to bring evangelical voters into state politics.

DiBella said his group has provided educational resources about Prop. 1 to more than 620 member churches, including talking points and scriptural references for pastors to include in their sermons.

“In a season where people are inundated with political ads and hearing political pundits on the news, it becomes white noise after a while,” he said. “There’s no more trusting, effective way to get that message out than from the pulpit.”

John Jackson, president of William Jessup University, a private Christian institution near Sacramento, recently sent an email to its 1,500-member pastor network encouraging them to join the campaign. He said Christians are often reluctant to get involved in politics because they believe there should be a divide between secular and sacred activities.

“All of life is spiritual,” he said. “The proponents have mastered the media. And our hope is that we will be able to mobilize the masses.”

Separately from the official opposition campaign, a handful of religiously-affiliated groups have launched websites to organize against Prop. 1.

One site developed by Pray California includes form letters to pastors and priests with actions they can take to prevent “the murder of an innocent, helpless child” from being added to California’s constitution: speaking to their congregations from the pulpit, sending emails, encouraging others to “VOTE for the Lord’s Choices” and praying.

Another site warns on the home page that “Governor Newsom wants birth day abortions to be legal” over a picture of a baby in a trash can next to a woman on an exam table. The campaign is run by Karen England, executive director of the Capitol Resource Institute, which advocates for “Judeo-Christian values in California,” in partnership with Pastor Jack Hibbs of the Calvary Chapel megachurch in Chino Hills.

Hibbs, who headlined a Capitol protest this spring against a bill signed last week by Newsom that prohibits prosecutions for miscarriages, stillbirths and self-managed abortion, declined an interview request.

Pastor Jack Hibbs of Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills speaks during a press conference and rally denouncing an abortion access bill at the state Capitol in Sacramento on April 19, 2022.
Rahul Lal
Pastor Jack Hibbs of Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills speaks during a press conference and rally denouncing an abortion access bill at the state Capitol in Sacramento on April 19, 2022.

England said polling shows that voters overwhelmingly oppose “late-term abortions,” referring to those after fetal viability, so their campaign aims to inform the public that Prop. 1 is a sneaky attempt to open the door to unlimited abortions. Many of their materials are designed for churches, including a letter to pastors, a guide on what types of political activity are legally allowed and door hangers they can print and distribute.

“We want to make sure we reach them with our limited time and that is a natural place to go with a community of people,” England said.

‘Moved by the moral imperative’

Not every religious leader speaking out against Prop. 1 is motivated primarily by defeating the measure at the ballot box.

Bishop Eric Menees of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin does not expect California voters will reject the measure, but said he has felt compelled to condemn abortion since early in his career, when he prayed with a woman who was facing pressure from her boyfriend and family to terminate an unwanted pregnancy and she chose adoption instead.

“It became very real for me,” he said.

Menees plans to send a letter to his diocese on Tuesday, the Feast of St. Francis, asking people to vote no on Prop. 1, pray for its defeat and share the word about the initiative. He is working with churches in the Fresno area, where he is based, on a day of prayer in late October to ask for God’s intervention.

“As a Christian, I’m always hopeful. I pray that hearts and minds will be changed. Maybe people are so sure that Prop. 1 is going to pass that they won’t show up to the voting booth,” he said. “But I’m primarily moved by the moral imperative.”

Mahoney, the priest in Burlingame, said the question of protecting life that drives the Catholic Church is much larger than this initiative.

The debate over abortion obscures other efforts to get women the resources they need to carry their pregnancies to term and take care of their babies after birth, he said. His parish collects baby clothes and other supplies for young mothers who could not otherwise afford them.

With Prop. 1 appearing likely to pass, Mahoney, who preached against the measure at a recent Sunday mass, said his ultimate goal is to shift the entire notion of what it means to give women a choice. Rather than pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into shoring up abortion providers, he said California should direct that money to programs that support poor mothers or to expanding access to adoption.

“What we are trying to do is to say, ‘Look, there are options,’” Mahoney said. “I would love to change the conversation, because we have no chance whatsoever” to defeat Prop. 1.