Ruling on same-sex marriage in D.C. called ‘partisan paternalism’

WASHINGTON – By refusing to allow residents of the District of Columbia to vote on same-sex marriage, a district board is undermining religious freedom and promoting “partisan paternalism under the guise of righteousness,” according to an analysis by the Archdiocese of Washington.

The analysis was sent by Auxiliary Bishop Barry C. Knestout to priests of the archdiocese Feb. 5, the day after the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics turned down a request for reconsideration by voters of the district’s new law allowing same-sex couples to marry.

An interfaith coalition of religious leaders had asked the board to approve a ballot initiative affirmatively defining marriage as between a man and a woman and a referendum overturning enactment of the same-sex marriage bill.

The board turned down both requests, citing a district law that forbids any initiatives or referendums that would “authorize discrimination” prohibited by the district’s Human Rights Act. The District of Columbia Superior Court upheld the board’s action on the initiative and is considering its decision on the referendum.

The human rights law prohibits discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, family responsibilities, genetic information, disability, matriculation or political affiliation.”

But by placing the rights of same-sex couples over the right of religious freedom, the board and the district’s City Council are failing in their duty to balance competing interests, the analysis said.

“Although supporters of same-sex marriage have framed its legalization as a simple matter of equality and civil rights, the task of the City Council was to weigh the interests of persons of the same sex to marry each other under civil law against the constitutionally protected interest of persons with deeply held religious beliefs to be able to practice their religion freely,” it said.

The law offers “only paltry protections for religious freedom” by permitting members of the clergy to decline to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies, the analysis said.

But, it added, “a Catholic caterer, for example, should not have to condone a same-sex union by catering the wedding or a marriage counselor should not be required to provide counseling to a same-sex couple if it violates his religious beliefs.”

The analysis also noted that the district’s elections and ethics board currently has only two members.

While the district’s human rights law “seems well-intentioned” in aiming to protect minorities from the prejudices of the majority, the analysis said, “it also permits paternalism by a small group of government officials who believe they know better than their constituents what a human right is.”

“Our country has always sought checks and balances to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a few,” it added.

The archdiocese said its support for district residents’ right to a referendum did not represent “an objection to the concept of representative democracy or an endorsement of pure majority rule.”

“Rather, our position promotes transparent and straightforward government by our elected representatives, who dishonor the dignity of the votes cast for them when they actively circumvent the will of their constituents,” the analysis said.

The same-sex marriage legislation was signed into law Dec. 18 and the district is scheduled to begin issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples in March.

Two members of Congress from Utah have introduced legislation that would require that a referendum be held on the issue of same-sex marriage in the district.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced the District of Columbia Referendum on Marriage Act Jan. 13; Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, offered identical legislation in the Senate Feb. 2.

The legislation would bar the District of Columbia from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples until after a referendum is held on the issue.

“The definition of marriage affects every person, and should be debated openly, lawfully and democratically,” Bennett said in announcing his sponsorship of the Senate bill.

Saying that the ethics board’s decision “was incorrect and reminiscent of the judicial activism that has imposed gay marriage by fiat and stimulated such discord in other venues,” Bennett added that Congress “should act to ensure that the question is settled by a democratic ballot initiative process.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.