Marital discord
Religious objections to the potential impact of D.C.'s same-sex marriage bill

Sunday, November 15, 2009

YOU MIGHT not realize, given the fury between Catholic Charities and the D.C. Council, that the Catholic Church is not trying to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage in the District. Rather, the battle is over the impact that the legislation could have on the vital services it provides.

Catholic Charities is concerned that the current draft would force it to choose between upholding its religious beliefs and complying with the District's human rights law in order to maintain city contracts. The clash raises tough questions. But they strike us as solvable, if council members shelve the self-righteousness and look for solutions.

The Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment of 2009 would legalize same-sex marriage in the District. It would not require any religious organizations to carry out such marriages. But the church worries that it would have to offer health benefits to same-sex spouses of employees and facilitate adoptions by same-sex couples, both of which it says would violate its religious beliefs.

The city can ill afford to lose Catholic Charities' services at homeless shelters and in health care. It's the largest nongovernmental provider of social services in the District and certainly among the most competent.

That's why we're somewhat mystified by the complacency reflected in comments such as those of council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who dismissed Catholic Charities' concerns as "somewhat childish," and David A. Catania (I-At Large), who said that the city would simply find another partner. Given the District's dismal track record with other nonprofit providers of social services -- see, for example, recent Post reports about the misspending of HIV/AIDS housing money -- we wonder at his confidence.

Church officials told us that they did not raise this worry to threaten the city. In fact, a church official told us, "We're not going to stop doing what we're doing." If it loses or gives up its contracts, the church would continue to serve the District with the resources it has and would look for ways to replace city funding. According to Catholic Charities, between 35 and 40 percent of its $54 million annual budget comes from local and federal money that flows through the District.

But need it come to that point? We favor the legalization of same-sex marriage, and we oppose discrimination. If Catholic Charities receives city money to handle adoptions, for example, it seems fair that the city can specify that same-sex couples should not be excluded.

But given the many crucial services that Catholic Charities provides that raise no questions for either side, people of goodwill ought to be able to find a way to arrange the law and the contracting to satisfy fairness without offending church principles.

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