SPOKANE, Wash. (CNS) — The Catholic Church opposes legalizing same-sex marriage but at the same time the church “has no tolerance for the misuse” of the issue “to incite hostility toward homosexuals,” said Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Spokane.

He made the comments in an Aug. 3 letter to Catholics of the diocese accompanied by reflections on a Washington state referendum on legalizing same-sex marriage.

Voters will be asked Nov. 6 to accept or reject a law redefining marriage to include same-sex unions that was passed in February by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Opponents of the measure gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot, so the law was suspended. If Referendum 74, as it is called, is approved, the same-sex marriage law will take effect Dec. 6.

“We are facing a decision about making a major shift in an institution that serves as the foundation stone of society,” Bishop Cupich said. “I would argue that this is not about granting equality to same-sex couples, but of changing the identity of marriage.”

The church recommends voters reject Referendum 74 and overturn “the law that redefines marriage,” he said, but the church’s opposition to the law is not about imposing “its definition on marriage” or determining “who can or cannot be married.”

“Neither the church nor the state has an exclusive right to do either. Marriage existed before either the church or the state. It is written in our human nature,” he said.

Bishop Cupich acknowledged that opinions on both sides of the issue are “deeply held and passionately argued,” and people on both sides have friends and family who are gay.

Proponents of the law, he said, are “often motivated by compassion” for those who feel marginalized by society because of their sexual orientation. Opponents of the law recognize the “importance of creating a supporting environment” for everyone, he said, but also have “sincere concerns” about what redefining marriage will mean for families and society as a whole.

He urged “calm, civility and respect” as people discuss “this critical issue” with friends and family, neighbors and co-workers. He said public dialogue also should be marked “by civility and clarity.”

Bishop Cupich said he also wanted to “be very clear that in stating our position, the Catholic Church has no tolerance for the misuse of this moment to incite hostility toward homosexual persons or promote an agenda that is hateful and disrespectful of their human dignity.”

He quoted the U.S. bishops’ 2006 statement “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination,” which said: “All people are created in the image and likeness of God and thus possess an innate human dignity that must be acknowledged and respected. … The church teaches that persons with a homosexual inclination ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2358).

“We recognize that these persons have been, and often continue to be, objects of scorn, hatred, and even violence in some sectors of our society,” the bishops’ statement said. “Sometimes this hatred is manifested clearly; other times, it is masked and gives rise to more disguised forms of hatred.”

In discussing the state law, Bishop Cupich said it does not give same-sex couples any new legal rights that they do not already have under the state’s recognition of domestic partners, in place since 2007. He noted that laws passed in 2008 and 2009 extended to domestic partnerships “all statutory rights” provided to traditional married couples.

“The Legislature made it clear at that time that all registered domestic partners in our state will be treated the same as married spouses,” he said. “As for the new law passed this spring, the only change is that the title ‘marriage’ is now given to these partnerships.

“Thus, the issue is not about making same sex unions equal to traditional marriages of one man and one woman, for this has already been done,” he continued. “Rather, it is about making same sex unions identical to traditional marriages. It is arguable that traditional marriage loses its unique identity in the process.”

In the law, marriage is “redefined solely in terms of a relationship between two people. All references to marriage as a union of sexual difference and its potential to create new life have been removed,” he said.

“If there is anything we have come to appreciate and value more fully in this modern age, it is that men and women are not the same. That is true not only biologically, but on so many other levels. Men and women are not interchangeable. They each bring something of their difference to complement each other,” he said.

“In a marriage union, a mutual sharing of each other’s difference creates life, but it also nourishes that life in a family where sons and daughters learn about gender from the way it is lived by their mothers and fathers,” he said.