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Citing same-sex marriage bill, Washington Archdiocese ends foster-care program

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; B01

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has ended its 80-year-old foster-care program in the District rather than license same-sex couples, the first fallout from a bitter debate over the city's move to legalize same-sex marriage.

Catholic Charities, which runs more than 20 social service programs for the District, transferred its entire foster-care program -- 43 children, 35 families and seven staff members -- to another provider, the National Center for Children and Families. Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the D.C. Council member who chairs the Committee on Human Services, said he didn't know of any problems with the transfer, which happened Feb. 1.

In addition to foster care, the center runs programs in Montgomery County and the District for homeless families and victims of domestic violence.

The marriage bill, which was approved and signed in December, is expected to become law in the next couple of weeks if it clears a congressional review period.

Catholic Charities, which receives $20 million from the city, had sounded alarms in the run-up to the council vote, saying programs serving tens of thousands of people were in danger. Being forced to recognize same-sex marriage, church officials said, could make it impossible for the church to be a city contractor because Catholic teaching opposes same-sex marriage.

The church and some experts said the city's measure has narrower exemptions for religious groups than other same-sex marriage laws across the country, particularly when it comes to requiring benefits for the same-sex partners of employees.

City officials knew of no other faith-based groups that said their city contracts were in jeopardy.

Edward Orzechowski, president and chief executive of Catholic Charities, the archdiocese's social service arm, said the group is optimistic that it will find a way to structure its benefits packages in other social service programs so that it can remain in partnership with the city without recognizing same-sex marriage.

Asked if that meant looking at ways to avoid paying benefits to same-sex partners or ways to write benefits plans so as not to characterize same-sex couples as "married," Orzechowski said "both, and."

"Now we're in a position where we need to scrutinize everything," he said. "From our point of view, it's important that we don't in any way compromise our religious teaching."

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chief sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill and chairman of the Health Committee, declined Tuesday to comment on the issue. Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the committee that oversaw the legislation, said he wasn't aware that the church had ended its foster-care program.

The archdiocese includes the District and suburban Maryland. Its Catholic Charities arm runs 82 programs serving people in those areas.

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