Catholic Charities decision an example of what happens when Church is backed into corner

The District of Columbia City Council called the law that went into effect March 3 the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment. 

But religious freedom has nothing to do with what is going on in Washington, D.C., today. Even before the law was finally in place, the District of Columbia was informing faith-based organizations that they had to put aside their beliefs if they planned to continue to work with the city in providing social services.  

The lesson to every other city and state should be clear: Unless such amendments have a universal exemption for religious institutions, they will be used as a club against faith-based entities that believe marriage to be a sacred union between a man and a woman.  

Lack of exemption  

The Archdiocese of Washington opposed the district’s same-sex marriage amendment when it was proposed in 2009. The position of the archdiocese reflected that of most Americans, who have opposed every such amendment when given the opportunity. The general consensus has been that such amendments force a redefinition of marriage on law and society that undercuts traditional marriage as the building block of society and the best means to nurture and protect children.  

But in addition to this objection to the legislation as a whole, the archdiocese was also concerned that the law had no protection for religious rights, except for a meaningless exemption stating that religious organizations would not be compelled to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies.  

The position of the archdiocese was that the law should not be considered until religious organizations had been exempted completely. Without that broader exemption, the archdiocese stated that the law as drafted would force faith-based entities to violate their fundamental beliefs. Or close their doors.  

The city council refused to expand its exemption, as it refused any attempt to allow the amendment to be placed on a ballot.  

Mission under threat  

The amendment was passed by the District’s council and Congress made no move to block the legislation, which it could have done because the district is a federal enclave.  

Even before the amendment was formally in place in March, the city began to do exactly as the archdiocese feared. Religious organizations were instructed on what they were required to do under the new law.  

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington — which serves 68,000 people annually — became the chief target of the new law as many of its programs are run with cooperation and commingled funding from the city.  

In December, Catholic Charities was informed that it would be required to place children with same-sex couples and to license same-sex couples as adoptive and foster-care families. Catholic Charities had no choice but to discontinue these services.  

At the same time, it became clear that the mission of Catholic Charities in Washington was under threat. Faith-based social services that extend benefits such as health care to the spouses of employees would now be required to include same-sex spouses as a condition of working with the city.  

The threat was clear: Catholic Charities had to recognize the new definition of same-sex marriage, or get out of social-service ministry. 

Litmus test  

Because of the amendment, Catholic Charities essentially faced three bad alternatives: 1) defy the law; 2) accept the law’s mandate and violate the beliefs of the Church on marriage; 3) close its doors.  

The stakes went beyond the District of Columbia. If Catholic Charities in Washington were to back down, every diocese in the country could potentially face the same pressure. Washington would be held up as the precedent where same-sex marriage amendments could be imposed without any protection for religious rights.  

As Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of Washington explained to the Washington Post, the Church has always been required when working with civil authorities to meet standards of service in its social ministry.  

In the past, “the question always was: ‘Did you serve everyone?’ And the answer was yes,” Archbishop Wuerl told the newspaper. Now a litmus test on religious beliefs was being imposed. To serve the poor, Catholic Charities was being told that it must change — or ignore — its beliefs on marriage.  

Keeping Catholic identity 

The archdiocese and Catholic Charities decided that it could not allow the Church to be forced out of service to the poor, yet it could not compromise its core Catholic beliefs. 

With approximately 10 percent of the 850 current employees receiving spousal benefits, Catholic Charities announced that because of the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment, for new employees and employees wishing to change their health benefits in the future, dependent children alone would be covered. Spouses would not be covered.  

The change in policy would eliminate the potential for Catholic Charities to violate its beliefs, while continuing to be able to serve the poor.  

It was not seen that way, however. The New York Times reported that the archdiocese took such action to “protest” the new law, though Catholic Charities had been backed into a corner by the law itself. It wasn’t protesting; it was trying to survive with its core beliefs on marriage and religious freedom uncompromised.  

Other secular voices complained that the archdiocese could have pursued an alternative strategy. Many pointed to the position the Archdiocese of San Francisco negotiated in 1997 when faced with a new ordinance mandating that agencies working with the city provide spousal benefits to “domestic partners.”

Catholic Charities of San Francisco worked around the bill once it passed by allowing employees to designate “legally domiciled” members of the household to be eligible for benefits — whether that be an elderly aunt, a child, an unmarried heterosexual partner, or homosexual partner.  

The comparison falls apart, however, since the D.C. amendment was specifically drafted to legalize same-sex marriage. It is not an issue of allowing health benefits to be extended to others within a household defined under a vague “domestic partners” statute. The amendment requires recognition by the Church of same-sex marriage.  

The impact of the District of Columbia measure could backfire on supporters of same-sex marriage. The argument has always been made that these amendments are innocuous and have no impact on religious freedom.  

Clearly, Washington shows that this is not the case at all. It provides a lesson on how the Church — and the poor — can be backed into a dangerous corner by an ideological agenda that can trump religious rights.  

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.

Video Talk (sidebar)

The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., has posted on YouTube a three-part lecture by Archbishop Donald Wuerl on the history of religious freedom and marriage, including what’s at stake in the District of Columbia’s vote to legalize same-sex marriage. Visit