Catholic Church -- Same-Sex Marriage: A threat to social service contracts in D.C.?

Patrick J. Deneen
Associate professor of government, Georgetown University
Thursday, November 12, 2009; 1:00 PM

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington said Wednesday that it will be unable to continue the social service programs it runs for the District if the city doesn't change a proposed same-sex marriage law, a threat that could affect tens of thousands of people the church helps with adoption, homelessness and health care.

Patrick J. Deneen, associate professor of government at Georgetown University, was online Thursday, Nov. 12, at 1 p.m. ET to explain and discuss the church's position on social service contracts and same-sex marriage.

Fearful that they could be forced, among other things, to extend employee benefits to same-sex married couples, church officials said they would have no choice but to abandon their contracts with the city.


Washington, D.C.: It seems to me that the government is infringing on religious liberty to protect gay rights. Isn't it possible to protect both, with a broad exemption?

Patrick J. Deneen: There is certainly a way to protect both interests, assuming passage of the gay marriage provision. For instance, New Hampshire provides religious organizations an exemption that, for instance, permits the provision of services without being subject to requirements that same-sex couples be provided spousal benefits. This is one area that is not being exempted under the proposed D.C. law.

College Park, Md.: Is it possible that some folks in DC government will try to remove the church's exempt status for their apparent participation in the political system?

Patrick J. Deneen: It is an issue that is of concern. In New Jersey, the State removed tax-exempt status of a religious organization for not providing use of its property for an event related to a same sex wedding.


Washington, D.C.: How can the Church claim that they have "no choice" but to abandon their assistance to the homeless and needy of the city? Even if you accept their opposition to gay marriage, being forced to extend employee benefits to same-sex partners seems like a much lesser evil than ending social services to the poor and needy.

Would it be possible for the Church to continue to provide services without contracts with the city?

Patrick J. Deneen: My best understanding is that the Church will continue to provide social and charitable services (in this sense, the Post's article today was not strictly correct - the Church is not threatening to withdraw services as such); it is only in cases where there is a contracted or licensed service that the District would adjudge the Church to be ineligible to provide those services on a contractual basis. If DC does not grant the exemptions that would be in keeping with the Catholic's tenets, the assumption is that the Church would no longer be eligible to be licensed or contracted to provide those services.


South Bend, Ind.: How does the First Amendment play into the debate? Is forcing the Catholic Church to act contrary to its beliefs a violation?

Patrick J. Deneen: There is a basic conflict here between the claims of those seeking the legalization of gay marriage and the claims of religious liberty - not only for religious institutions per se, but individuals (such as individuals who might offer privately contracted services, such as wedding photographers, whose faith beliefs could be compromised by providing their service to a gay couple, and who would be subject to anti-discrimination lawsuits). Another area where there is a conflict is the right of religious organizations not to provide certain services or benefits, such as certain spousal employment benefits or adoption services. More broadly (going beyond the gay marriage issue), without exemptions, religious organizations can be forced to act in ways that go against their tenets, for instance, in being forced to provide contraceptive benefits in health care policies. Here the various claims run against the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. In these sorts of instances, there is a demand that religious organizations essentially act as secular organizations.

_______________________ Catholic Church gives D.C. ultimatum (Post, Nov. 12)


Denton, Md.: Hasn't the ACLU also voiced its opinion to the D.C. Council on this? They also asked for broader protections for religious groups, right? The Council should listen when the Church and the ACLU are agreeing on an issue.

Patrick J. Deneen: The ACLU testified at the testimony that the proposed legislation represented a narrowing of religious liberty. They proposed a broader religious exemption than the originally proposed bill. The original bill proposed no religious exemptions for any religious organizations that serves the general public(whether they use public funding or not). The ACLU argued for broader exemptions than are in the current legislation - for instance, the ACLU argued for the protection of private individuals who would refuse - on the basis of faith commitments - to provide goods or services for the solemnization of marriage. The current proposed legislation does not provide for any such exemption of private individuals. Here the argument was made not (only) by religious institutions, but the ACLU.


Albany, N.Y.: Is the Church bluffing, and should the city call it? Surely there are other non-profit providers able to provide comparable services and the loss of city contract revenue would be a sizable hit for Catholic Charities. One doesn't normally let contractors dictate a government's human rights (or any other) policy -- if they find the contract terms unacceptable for whatever reason, they are under no obligation to sign the contract. Call their bluff

Patrick J. Deneen: Actually, the Church is not a "beneficiary" of funds - the Church contracts with the city to provide services that it cannot provide for its citizens in need. The Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental contracted provider for DC citizens in need.

There may be other providers, but in many instances the grants from the District are only partial grants - the Church "leverages" those grants (including some $10 million in additional funds, much provided by donations by parishioners). There is also a network of volunteers who have longstanding commitments to the relief of the sufferings of the poor and needy. The idea that these funds - but more, these services and the religious commitment and motivation that underlies them - can be easily replaced is at best an optimistic view, at worst a dangerous wager.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: How has this played out in other states where gay marriage has been legalized? This seems like something that would have come up in states that have legalized gay marriage.

Patrick J. Deneen: Generally in other states there have been religious exemptions. The broadest of those exemptions is probably in New Hampshire - but even there, private individuals are not exempted if they refuse goods or services on the basis of religious belief.

In Massachusetts, the government refused to continue the contract with Catholic Charities for adoption placement because the Church's unwillingness to place adoptive children with same-sex couples.


NoVa: As long as the church doles out millions in cash that the District does NOT have to pay for "safety net" programs, the church is acceptable. But, just because the church stands for its core beliefs, like them or not, suddenly the church is a villain?!

How badly will this be a financial burden to the District if the church yanks this sort of funding out?

Patrick J. Deneen: I think the basic premise of the Post's story requires clarification. The premise of today's story was that the Catholic Church was threatening to cease to provide charitable services if the law legalizing gay marriage is passed. In point of fact, it is the DC government that would cease to license or contract with the Church unless the Church conformed to a definition of marriage that violates its faith tradition. Without a set of broader legal exemptions allowing for the Church to remain faithful to its definition of marriage, it will cease to be permitted by the City to provide the contracted and licensed services that it has for well over a century. The Church's fundamental desire in this controversy is to continue its desire and freedom to serve.

_______________________ This concludes our discussion with Patrick Deneen. Thank you.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company