Blog Post

Religious Freedom Threatened by DC Same-Sex Marriage Law, Archdiocese Says

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS Staff Journalist The Archdiocese of Washington says that a D.C. City Council decision to narrow the religious freedom exemption in a bill recognizing same-sex marriage will leave religious organizations and individuals at risk of lawsuits and could endanger Catholic social services. According to a statement by the Archdiocese, the DC City Council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary narrowed an exemption for religious freedom in a proposed bill that would legalize marriage between same-sex couples. The bill originally stated that religious organizations would not have to participate in the “solemnization or celebration” of a same-sex marriage ceremony and from the “promotion of marriage that is in violation of the entity’s religious beliefs.” However, this language was revised and significantly narrowed by allowing an exemption only for the “promotion of marriage through religious programs, counseling, courses, or retreats.” “As a result, religious organizations and individuals are at risk of legal action for refusing to promote and support same-sex marriages in a host of settings where it would compromise their religious beliefs,” the Archdiocese said. “This includes employee benefits, adoption services and even the use of a church hall for non-wedding events for same-sex married couples. Religious organizations such as Catholic Charities could be denied licenses or certification by the government, denied the right to offer adoption and foster care services, or no longer be able to partner with the city to provide social services for the needy.” The narrowed exemption disregards federal law, and was adopted after council members rejected concerns raised by the ACLU, the Archdiocese, the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington as well as nationally recognized legal scholars who cited well established U.S. Supreme Court case law in support of the broader exemption. At present, the Archdiocese of Washington serves 580,000 Catholics in 40 parishes, including 21 Catholic schools. They also run 25 corporations that serve the greater community and are responsible for serving more than a third of the city’s homeless population. It also supplements funding for city programs with $10 million of its own money. Jane G. Belford, chancellor of the Archdiocese, said in a letter to the council this week that "All of those services will be adversely impacted if the exemption language remains so narrow." Edward Orzechowski, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, went even further, warning that the narrowing of the religious exemption language “will cause the government to discontinue our long partnership with them and open up the agency to litigation and the use of resources to defend our religious beliefs rather than serve the poor,” he said. Catholic Charities presently serves 68,000 people in the city each year, with the city’s parishes operating another 93 social service programs provide crucial services to local residents. Gay activists, who have strong support on the Council, say the Church is trying to blackmail the city. "The issue here is they are using public funds, and to allow people to discriminate with public money is unacceptable," Peter Rosenstein of the gay activist group, Campaign for All D.C. Families, told the Washington Post. Council members are responding with indifference, such as Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the judiciary committee, who said the council "will not legislate based on threats." "The problem with the individual exemption is anybody could discriminate based on their assertion of religious principle," he told the Post. "There were many people back in the 1950s and '60s, during the civil rights era, that said separation of the races was ordained by God.” Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill and the chairman of the Health Committee, said he would rather end the city's relationship with the church than give in to its demands. "They don't represent, in my mind, an indispensable component of our social services infrastructure," he said. Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) called the Church’s response  "somewhat childish" and said she hoped they would reconsider their position. "Are they really going to harm people because they have a philosophical disagreement with us on one issue?" Cheh asked. "I hope, in the silver light of day, when this passes, because it will pass, they will not really act on this threat." In any event, the Archdiocese maintains that it will not compromise Church teaching to suit the Council. “The teachings of the Catholic Church, including those of the Archdiocese of Washington, hold that all individuals have equal dignity and deserve equal respect,” the Archdiocese said. “However, marriage by its very nature must be between a man and a woman. One essential purpose of marriage is an openness to creating and nurturing the next generation, which is the reason that governments and cultures throughout all time have given these relationships special recognition and support.” © All Rights Reserved, Living His Life Abundantly®/Women of Grace®