By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; A01
Employees at Catholic Charities were told Monday that the social services organization is changing its health coverage to avoid offering benefits to same-sex partners of its workers -- the latest fallout from a bitter debate between District officials trying to legalize same-sex marriage and the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.
Starting Tuesday, Catholic Charities will not offer benefits to spouses of new employees or to spouses of current employees who are not already enrolled in the plan. A letter describing the change in health benefits was e-mailed to employees Monday, two days before same-sex marriage will become legal in the District.
"We looked at all the options and implications," said the charity's president, Edward J. Orzechowski. "This allows us to continue providing services, comply with the city's new requirements and remain faithful to the church's teaching."
Catholic Charities, which receives $22 million from the city for social service programs, protested in the run-up to the council's December vote to allow same-sex marriage, saying that it might not be able to continue its contracts with the city, including operating homeless shelters and facilitating city-sponsored adoptions. 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 such unions.
After the council voted to legalize gay marriage, Catholic Charities last month transferred its foster-care program -- 43 children, 35 families and seven staff members -- to another provider, the National Center for Children and Families.
Orzechowski said Monday that the change in health benefits will be the last move necessary in response to the legislation.
"We do not anticipate any further changes whatsoever," he said. "Taking the action we have on foster care and spousal we feel has addressed everything the new law requires of us."
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who voted to legalize same-sex marriage, said the charity had the right to change its health insurance plan.
"Catholic Charities is a private, nonprofit corporation. They can choose to provide benefits to families and spouses or not," he said. "I hope that it's not just a runaround to keep from doing things they should do, but it's within their purview to decide what to offer their employees."
The church faced two options with the approval of the new law, said Robert Tuttle, a George Washington University professor who studies the relationship between church and state. One choice was to expand the definition of domestic partner, as the Archdiocese in San Francisco did years ago, to include a parent, sibling or someone else in the household.
The second choice was to do what the Washington Archdiocese has done: eliminate benefits for all spouses.
"For decades, the church has been at the forefront of worker benefits, so this move cuts against their understanding of social justice and health benefits to all possible," Tuttle said. "But obviously, you can see they felt there was a real conflict between those values. They feel they weren't left with much of a choice."
Staff members at the charity were not given advance notice of the new policy and will not be able to add a spouse now because the most recent open enrollment period ended in November.
Those who use their health benefits to cover spouses will be grandfathered into the new policy.
Catholic Charities, which operates in the District and five counties in Maryland, employs 850 people. Fewer than 100 use the spousal benefit option, charity officials said.
Staff writer Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.