By Mark Abrams

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Catholic church leaders from throughout the United States are gathering in Baltimore for a week-long conference starting today. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput suggests the subject of same-sex marriage and the recent Vatican synod discussions of a more welcoming church for gay Catholics could dominate debate.

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Chaput says he expects how the clergy might respond to the growing movement to legalize same-sex marriage throughout the country might emerge in some of the closed-door discussions.

Nearly three dozen states, including Pennsylvania, allow gay marriage.

During a recent lecture in New York, Chaput disclosed one approach being discussed in some church circles is to have the clergy refuse to officiate civil marriages and decline to sign marriage licenses, but still conduct church weddings.

“Refusing to conduct civil marriages now as a matter of principled resistance has vastly more witness value than being kicked out of the marriage business later by the government,” he says, “which is a likely bet, or so the reasoning goes.”

Chaput says he personally doesn’t endorse the idea, but believes the church needs to assert its moral authority.

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“I don’t necessarily agree with this approach,” he says, “but in the spirit of candor encouraged by Pope Francis, I hope our nation’s bishops will see the need to discuss and consider it as a real course of action, as a possibility.”

He also concedes there’s growing concern the Catholic church could soon come under attack from gay activists who might press the government to punish it for failing to accept such unions.

“Revoking tax exemptions, imposing liability under public accomodation statutes and employment anti-discrimination acts, closing access to government contracts and grants and other such acts.”

Chaput insists despite those threats the stuggle over gay marriage and religious freedom is not over.

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