It’s a fight straight from the Vatican now landed on the wind-swept prairie of western Minnesota — all because of a Magic Marker, a yard sign and a 16-year-old boy with an iPhone.
Lennon Cihak, a high school junior in the Minnesota town of Barnesville — population about 2,500 — was raised Roman Catholic like his parents and grandparents. His mother and father, Shana and Doug Cihak, were baptized, confirmed and married in Barnesville’s century-old Assumption Church, the same one where Lennon had been attending confirmation classes since spring.
Then on Oct. 24 — 13 days before the vote on a proposed state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman — everything changed.
That night, Lennon attended a run-through for the ceremony of his confirmation, the sacrament in which believers reaffirm their faith. Lennon, who was named after Beatles member John Lennon, says nothing special happened at church to set the fateful events in motion, but for weeks he had been thinking about the marriage amendment. A lot of his friends were opposed, saying it didn’t seem fair.
“In the Constitution it says all men are created equal. If they can’t get married, they aren’t equal,” he remembers thinking.
So that night he took a pro-amendment yard sign, changed “Vote Yes” to “Vote No” with a black marker and scrawled the words “Equal Marriage Rights.” He then posed with the sign, snapped a photo with his phone, and posted the picture on his Facebook page.
That’s when things got messy.
Shana Cihak, a City Hall billing clerk, says the next day there was an urgent message on the family answering machine for her and her husband to meet with Father Gary LaMoine, the parish priest. That conversation on Oct. 25, according to her version, started cordially, with the priest telling them they needed to come to church more often.
But then, she says, LaMoine told her that Lennon’s opinions on same-sex marriage were in conflict with the church and that her son could not be confirmed.
She was stunned. Lennon had only expressed an opinion. He wasn’t even old enough to vote. Why should he be denied a sacrament when others who break church rules are not?
“Do you mean to tell me,” Shana Cihak says she told LaMoine, “that when you stand up there on Sunday and you see all of those families with two or three kids, you don’t know they are using birth control?” She says she was told she could no longer serve as sponsor of one of the kids in the confirmation class. She came home in tears.
LaMoine and Bishop Michael Hoeppner, who oversees the Diocese of Crookston, which includes Assumption Church, did not respond to requests for an interview. But in a strongly worded letter LaMoine sent to church members on Nov. 15, the priest tells a very different story:
“It is to my dismay that what should have been kept an internal church matter has now become a public controversy,” LaMoine wrote, adding that he knew nothing about the Facebook posting until his secretary found it the day after his meeting with the Cihaks to talk about issues he did not specify. He called Lennon’s Facebook picture — which was “liked” by several members of the confirmation class — a “defacement” and apologized to the parish for the Cihaks’ behavior.
He also said Lennon was the one who decided to end the confirmation process.
LaMoine wrote that he never denied Lennon’s confirmation, but added: “Even if he had not withdrawn … I would have had no choice but to remove him from consideration given his rejection of marriage as we understand it. Rejection of the church’s teaching on marriage is a very serious breach of faith.”
Lennon says the idea that he quit is untrue.
The Catholic Church’s highest leadership has been vehement in its opposition to same-sex marriage. In March, Pope Benedict XVI urged a delegation of U.S. bishops, including those from Minnesota, not to back down in the global fight against same-sex marriage. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has also taken up the fight. “We should be strengthening marriage, not redefining it,” says Tim Roder, associate director for the promotion and defense of marriage at the conference.
St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt crusaded in support of Minnesota’s proposed marriage amendment, sending two letters — one just before the election — to every priest in the state telling them to advocate for it in their congregations. He wrote that the issue of preserving traditional marriage was “one of the greatest challenges of our times,” and that any priest who disagreed must remain silent.
Of the $4.5 million raised to support the measure, about a third came from the Catholic Church. About $50,000 came from the Diocese of Crookston, says Gary Goldsmith, executive director of Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.
The dust-up in Barnesville quickly escalated. It was featured on talk radio in nearby Fargo, N.D., where callers split evenly between those who applauded the church for sticking to its rules and those who said “maybe it’s time they need to open their eyes,” says show producer Daniel Gunderson. A Facebook page, “I Support Lennon Cihak,” has nearly 3,000 “likes.” Reader comments on Catholic blogs have come down solidly in support of LaMoine.
The incident caught the attention of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Ross Murray, director of faith, religion and values for the group, says it is not an isolated case. He cited a Michigan man whose invitation to speak at his former Catholic school’s commencement was rescinded after someone spotted a Facebook post where he announced his engagement to his male partner.
“I don’t know who has decided that they need to monitor their members’ Facebook pages,” Murray said.
Doug Cihak wonders about that as well. “What are you doing looking over our shoulder, reporting a kid’s Facebook page to father?” he says. “Get a life, will you?”
Although the amendment failed statewide, in Barnesville it passed easily, leaving the Cihak family unsure of their next step. “We don’t have anything bad to say about the Catholic Church. I’ve been a Catholic my whole life. I’m 53. I don’t plan to do anything else,” Doug Cihak says.
Lately he has been rethinking once-steadfast beliefs. “Before, I was always one man, one woman. I am a conservative,” he says. But at the polling place, he paused when it came to voting on the Marriage for Minnesota Act.
“In the end, I sided with my son.”