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D.C. Council digs in on same-sex nuptials
Showdown with church 'I don't know where the compromise would be'

By Tim Craig, Michelle Boorstein and Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 13, 2009

D.C. Council members are hardening their opposition to the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington's efforts to change a proposed same-sex marriage law, setting up a political showdown between the city and one of its largest social service providers.

Several council members said Thursday that Church officials miscalculated by saying this week that their Catholic Charities organization will have to end its contracts with the city if the proposal passes without changes.

"It's a dangerous thing when the Catholic Church starts writing and determining the legislation and the laws of the District of Columbia," said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Human Services Committee.

Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, countered that the city is "the one giving the ultimatum."

"We are not threatening to walk out of the city," Gibbs said. "The city is the one saying, 'If you want to continue partnering with the city, then you cannot follow your faith teachings.' "

Under the bill, headed for a council vote next month, religious organizations would not be required to perform or make space available for same-sex weddings. But they would have to obey city laws prohibiting discrimination against gay men and lesbians. Church officials say Catholic Charities would have to suspend its social services work for the city, rather than provide employee benefits to same-sex married couples or allow them to adopt.

Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), one of two openly gay members of the council, said Thursday morning that he hoped to reach a compromise with the Church. He noted that it is a major provider of services for immigrants in his ward.

Late Thursday, however, Graham said he had changed his mind after reviewing same-sex marriage laws in New Hampshire, Connecticut and Vermont. He asked why the Church has not abandoned services in those states.

"If the Catholic Church has been able to adjust in Connecticut, I think they can certainly adjust here," Graham said.

Catholic Charities in Boston halted its adoption programs with the city because Massachusetts requires that agencies not discriminate against same-sex couples as potential parents.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said he plans to meet with his colleagues Friday to discuss the issue. But he added, "I don't know where the compromise would be.

"It seems to me if they choose not to provide those services, we will have to find someone else," Gray said.

At issue is $18 million to $20 million in city funds for 20 to 25 programs run by Catholic Charities, said Edward J. Orzechowski, the charity's president and chief executive officer.

Among the programs he said were vulnerable:

-- A medical clinic at the Spanish Catholic Center serving 3,000 people, which gets 60 percent of its budget from the District, much of it in reimbursements from the city-run HealthCare Alliance insurance coverage.

-- Tutors for people preparing to take GED tests under a program in which the city subsidizes more than 35 percent of the cost.

-- Foster care and adoption placements for about 100 children a year, none of them to same-sex couples, more than 90 percent funded by the city.

In addition, Catholic Charities gets city funds to offer mental health services, to operate nine homeless shelters and, during the winter months, to run several hypothermia shelters.

"We're going to continue to serve those in need," Orzechowski said. "But how we do that, where we do it and the manner in which we do it is what's at risk."

Orzechowski said many of the people who work for Catholic Charities and receive its services are from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, but giving same-sex spousal benefits to staff members or placing adoptive children with gay couples would violate Church tenets.

Linda C. McClain, a law professor at Boston University who is studying the same-sex marriage debate nationwide, said the outcome of the standoff between the District and the Church could have far-reaching implications for other states.

"This case really pits the commitment to religious freedom against the importance of anti-discrimination," McClain said. "The courts have been pretty clear that you can't force a religious organization to express a message it doesn't agree with. . . . But it's a tougher case to say you won't be able to provide services to the poor because of this."

More than 200 members of the city's clergy who support same-sex marriage issued a statement Thursday denouncing Church's stance. "To hold hostage the rights of human beings over this, I think, is just really despicable," said the Rev. Dennis W. Wiley, co-chairman of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality. "There are others who can step up to the plate who would love to have the contracts."

Some Catholics also expressed their frustration with the Church. "It's totally embarrassing," said Kathy Boylan, a member of the peace movement Catholic Worker.

The dispute sparked debate at Catholic University. "That's incredibly unfortunate" that services are threatened, said Erin Kilroy, a senior at Catholic who heads the College Democrats. "It's sad to see that the Church would cut off benefits to everyone because we don't want to give them to you and you."

But Alexandra Smith, who heads the College Republicans, said, "The Church, like any other private institution, has the right to operate freely and in a manner that is in accordance with its principles."

Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl was not available to comment Thursday.

Several council members said the Church is asking them to undermine the 1977 Human Rights Act, which protects gays and other minorities.

"It's not even a slippery slope. It's a wire that would be tripped," Wells said.

Council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5) said the Church, which has tax-exempt property and often interacts with the city government, should be wary of picking a fight.

"I am proud they have done so many community service things, but I would hope this would not be a line in the sand," he said.

Staff writer Susan Kinzie contributed to this report.

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