Washington, D.C.’s same-sex marriage bill could limit work of church agencies

WASHINGTON – Recent news reports have mistakenly claimed that the Archdiocese of Washington and its social service arm, Catholic Charities, are threatening to stop providing social services if the District of Columbia City Council’s proposed same-sex marriage bill passes, said Auxiliary Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Washington.

“Catholic Charities is vowing to continue its services even if a same-sex marriage bill passes,” he wrote in a recent open letter to local Catholics posted on the Web site of the Catholic Standard, Washington’s archdiocesan newspaper.

Bishop Knestout said the level of services will not be the same though, because “without a meaningful religious exemption in the bill, Catholic Charities and other similar religious providers will become ineligible for contracts, grants and licenses to continue those services.”

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington currently serves 68,000 people in the city, including one-third of Washington’s homeless. It also is the largest private provider of social services in the Washington metropolitan region, with more than 65 charitable programs serving thousands of people in need, regardless of faith.

The homeless shelter, counseling and adoption programs are funded with $20 million in government contracts and about $10 million in funds from the archdiocese.

Last spring, the City Council passed a bill requiring the district to recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. Despite opposition from city residents and many clergy, the council passed the measure without comment from residents.

The council is expected to vote by the end of the year on whether to allow gay marriages to be performed in the district. The measure also would have to be approved by Congress, which has 30 days to review City Council legislation before it becomes law.

Archdiocesan officials and other religious leaders in the district have said if the council is going to pass the measure despite their objections, then it must have a strong protections for religious conscience.

An archdiocesan fact sheet about the proposed marriage legislation and its impact on Catholic social service provisions states that Catholic Charities observes church teaching that marriage is the union of a man and a woman and as such the organization “cannot place children with same-sex parents in foster care and adoption; it cannot promote and support same-sex marriage through payment of spousal benefits. The bill would compel Catholic Charities to do both of these.”

In October, representatives from the Washington Archdiocese testified before a City Council committee about the need for a strong religious freedom exemption in the same-sex marriage bill. A council committee voted Nov. 10 to approve the bill – the Religious Freedom and Marriage Equality Amendment Act – without adding the requested exemption. The bill is now headed to the full council for a vote.

In a Nov. 17 op-ed column in The Washington Post daily newspaper, Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, described how Catholic Charities and the archdiocese have worked with the city to serve the people of Washington for decades.

He said the council’s proposed legislation “could end these kinds of partnerships” but he added: “It doesn’t need to be that way.”

“While we do not agree with the council on redefining marriage, we recognize that it is firmly committed to opening marriage to homosexual couples. We are asking that new language be developed that more fairly balances different interests – those of the city to redefine marriage and those of faith groups so that they can continue to provide services without compromising their deeply held religious teachings and beliefs.”

The archbishop noted that “two core tenets of our faith” are the nature of marriage and a commitment to serving others. Under the proposed legislation, he said, the archdiocese “would be forced to choose between these two principles.”

He wrote that the proposed legislation offers little protection for religious beliefs, including no protections for individuals.

Under the bill, religious organizations would be exempt from participating in ceremonies or from teaching about same-sex marriage in religion classes and retreats in accord with their faith beliefs, but they would be required to recognize and promote same-sex marriage everywhere else, including in employment policies, and adoption and foster-care policies, against their beliefs.

The archdiocese and Catholic Charities are committed to continue providing services, he said, noting that “there has been no threat or ultimatum to end services, just a simple recognition that the new requirements by the city for religious organizations to recognize same-sex marriages in their policies could restrict our ability to provide the same level of services as we do now.”

Archbishop Wuerl said he realizes the council is likely to legalize same-sex marriage but said he hoped council members would work with the archdiocese and Catholic Charities to “find a way to better balance interests so religious organizations that have served this city well for many decades may continue to provide services without compromising the tenets of their faith.”

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

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