Catholic Charities will not abandon city's poor because of same-sex marriage bill, bishop says
Tuesday, November 17, 2009 8:39 AM
Recent news reports have mistakenly claimed that the Archdiocese of Washington, and its social service arm, Catholic Charities, are threatening to cease providing social services to the District of Columbia if the proposed same-sex marriage bill passes, said Bishop Barry Knestout, auxiliary bishop of Washington and moderator of the curia, in a letter to members of the community last week.
Religious freedom exemption too narrow in same-sex marriage bill, chancellor says
The D.C. City Council's Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary narrowed an exemption for religious freedom in a proposed same-sex marriage bill on Nov. 10, the Archdiocese of Washington said in a statement.
The committee voted 4 to 1 to send a bill legalizing same-sex marriage to the full council for debate. They declined an amendment by Councilmember Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) that would have allowed an individual to decline to provide services related to same-sex weddings.
Following this vote, Jane Belford, the chancellor of the archdiocese, sent a letter to Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), the committee chairperson, reacting to the religious freedom exemption revisions, saying the archdiocese is concerned there are "serious misconceptions" about how the exemption language will affect religious institutions, and individuals in the District. She added that social service providers like Catholic Charities would also be "adversely impacted" by the weak religious freedom exemption.
"Most importantly, the revised language does not permit Catholic Charities and other religious service organizations to freely function as religious entities serving the needs of District residents," she said. Catholic Charities serves 68,000 people in the city, including one-third of Washington's homeless. It is also the largest private provider of social services in the Washington metropolitan region providing more than 65 charitable programs to thousands of people in need, regardless of faith.
Belford said the narrow exemption also leaves religious institutions open to "civil suit and/or deprivation of governmental benefits for refusing to recognize the equivalence of same-sex marriage and traditional marriage in a host of settings in which, if the institution were to provide equivalent recognition, it would breach its own fundamental beliefs."
She noted that the committee inaccurately claimed that the exemption language contained in the bill is broader than the language proposed in the earlier bill.
"On the contrary, the newly proposed exemption is actually much narrower than the original language proposed," she wrote. "...While the prior bill exempted a religious organization from any activities related to the promotion of same-sex marriage, the committee's revision includes new language limiting the scope of the term "promotion" to only those activities considered 'religious programs, counseling, courses or retreats.'"
Belford also commented on the committee's characterization of an individual's religious belief about the meaning of marriage as a "discriminatory impulse" or "instinct."
This "reflects a disquieting lack of respect for the fundamental, constitutionally guaranteed right of an individual to practice his or her religion, and even for religion itself," she said in the letter.
She added that providing an exemption for individual conscientious objectors in the bill "would not create an 'invitation' to discriminate. The right of the U.S. citizen to practice his or her religion has existed since our nation's founding."
The chancellor added that this bill must be seen "as a task in balancing competing interests: the interest of the homosexual community to be able to marry freely and the interest of the religious community to be able to practice religion freely."
The bishop's letter was accompanied by a fact sheet further explaining the archdiocese's position.
Bishop Knestout explained, "Catholic Charities is not threatening to end its services if a same sex marriage bill passes. Catholic Charities is vowing to continue its services even if a same sex marriage bill passes. However, the bill, as it now reads, will diminish the resources we have to do so. Why is that so? Because without a meaningful religious exemption in the bill, Catholic Charities and other similar religious providers will become ineligible for contracts, grants and licenses to continue those services."
The fact sheet stated that Catholic Charities observes the Catholic belief that marriage is the union of man and woman and that's why, "It cannot place children with same-sex parents in foster care and adoption; it cannot promote and support same-sex marriage through payment of spousal benefits. The bill would compel Catholic Charities to do both of these. Catholic Charities cannot comply with these requirements."
In October, representatives from the archdiocese explained the need for a strong religious freedom exemption in testimony before the D.C. City Council's Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, and a group of nationally-recognized legal scholars also provided testimony before the committee urging greater religious freedom protection. But on Nov. 10, the committee approved the bill - the Religious Freedom and Marriage Equality Amendment Act - without adding the requested exemption. The bill is now headed to the full council for a vote.
Bishop Knestout added that if the council moves forward to redefine marriage, "we respectfully request that religious individuals and organizations be afforded protection from restrictions on their deeply held religious beliefs and that the Council preserve the ability of Catholic Charities and other providers to continue to serve the growing and unmet needs of the poor and most vulnerable residents of the District of Columbia."
Catholic Charities serves 68,000 people in the city, including one-third of Washington's homeless. It is also the largest private provider of social services in the Washington metropolitan region, providing more than 65 charitable programs to thousands of people in need, regardless of faith. The homeless shelter, counseling and adoption programs are funded with $20 million in government contracts and about $10 million of money from the archdiocese.
In a Nov. 16 column in the Washington Examiner, Jonetta Rose Barras wrote that the Archdiocese, "took the heat last week as they made clear they would not abandon fundamental tenets of their religious doctrine, which among other things asserts that homosexual relations is a sin."
"Faced with a choice between God and government, not surprisingly the archdiocese and Catholic Charities chose God," she said.
Barras also asserted that Catholic Charities isn't as easily replaced as Councilmember David Catania (I-At Large) has contended. The well-managed operation, provides "high quality services and kicks in its own money," she wrote.
A Nov. 15 Washington Post editorial also came out in support of finding a way to "arrange the law and the contracting to satisfy fairness without offending church principles."
The editorial continued, "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," the Washington Post editorial said.
Just last week, Catholic Charities received the 2009 National Capital Business Ethics Award for the Not-for-Profit Category. The award was established to honor companies that demonstrate a firm commitment to ethical business practices in everyday operations, management philosophies and response to crises or challenges.
Additional information, including testimony, press releases and other material about this issue, is available at www.marriagemattersdc.org. Bishop Knestout's letter and the archdiocesan fact sheet are posted on the Catholic Standard's Web site, www.cathstan.org .