Sunday, January 10, 2010

Revisiting a Showdown in Washington, D.C.

In The Wall Street Journal, Emily Esfahani Smith provides an excellent overview of the ongoing “showdown” in Washington, D.C. between the city council and the local Roman Catholic archdiocese over gay civil marriage rights. I particularly appreciate Smith’s outlining the likely “accommodation” that the archdiocese will probably make, and in so doing “save face by pretending it isn’t knowingly recognizing gay marriages.”

Esfahani’s op-ed is reprinted in its entirety below, followed by a reflection or two of my own.


Washington, Gay Marriage,
and the Catholic Church

By Emily Esfahani Smith

The Wall Street Journal
January 9, 2010

D.C.’s gay marriage law has put the archdiocese in a bind

The push to legalize gay marriage is often billed as a civil-rights struggle—a successor to the movement that ended legalized racial discrimination decades ago. But there is another component to the fight that is now on display in the nation’s capital: The drive for gay marriage is also forcing unwanted change within the [Roman] Catholic Church.

Last month, Washington D.C.’s City Council passed legislation legalizing gay marriage. Mayor Adrian Fenty [right], a Democrat, quickly signed the bill. To become law — which could happen as early as March — the legislation must undergo a congressional review period.

By passing gay marriage, the City Council has put the [Roman] Catholic Church, or more accurately, the Archdiocese of Washington, in an awkward position. Either the church will have to recognize gay marriage or it will be forced to abandon a large portion of its charitable programs.

That’s because the District outsources many of its social services to Catholic Charities, which runs the charitable services of the archdiocese. These charities provide a variety of services—including shelters for the homeless and food for the hungry — to about 124,000 needy residents in the region (which also includes a portion of Maryland). The archdiocese also oversees St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home, a care center for foster children, and it administers adoptions for the District. For this work, Catholic Charities receives approximately $20 million in contracts, grants and licenses from the city. It bolsters these funds with $10 million of its own money and a network of 3,000 volunteers.

If same-sex marriages are legalized, which seems inevitable, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington [left] points out that the church will find itself in violation of the new law if it continues its city-sponsored social services programs. Why? Because city contractors are required to abide by all of the District’s laws and there are provisions in the bill requiring the church to acknowledge gay marriage by offering employment benefits to same-sex couples and by placing children with gay adoptive couples.

The archdiocese was not a particularly strong advocate against gay marriage in the District, but it did press for a religious exemption to be added to the same-sex marriage bill. Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont all have broad religious protections in their gay marriage laws, which allow gay couples to marry but do not require religious organizations to recognize those marriages.

But the City Council refused to add a religious exemption to its bill. According to Patrick Deneen [right], a professor of government at Georgetown University, the City Council “is being uniquely recalcitrant,” especially when you “consider existing precedent elsewhere in the country that shows sensitivity to, and respect for, religious liberty.” Without the religious exemption, the archdiocese has said publicly that it will have no choice but to abandon its publicly sponsored charitable works.

Phil Mendelsohn [left], a city councilman who voted for the bill, told me that the gay-marriage legislation that is about to become law actually expands religious freedom. “This bill doesn’t require any church or faith to solemnize a marriage contrary to [their] beliefs,” he said. “It does, however, allow many churches who wish to solemnize same-sex marriage to do so.”

This claim is a smoke screen. The City Council’s bill only reiterates religious protections already guaranteed under the First Amendment. It doesn’t extend other protections to religious organizations that take money from the government, as the religious exemption the archdiocese sought would have. It would have been a small concession to grant such an exemption. But in the conflict between gay rights and religious rights, the city favors gay rights. It argues that the church should not discriminate while it receives public funds.

Framed in this way, it is hard to disagree. If the church receives public money, it should have to live by the public’s rules. [See the previous Wild Reed post, “Render Unto Caesar, Bitches!”) But Mr. Deneen makes the argument that it’s actually the city that is dependent on the church. The archdiocese receives public funds because it provides important social services in a way that is both cheaper and likely more effective than if the city itself provided those services. At the very least, while still spending the $20 million it already gives the archdiocese, the city would have to live without the $10 million the archdiocese spends on its charities if the church dropped its charitable programs altogether.

But the archdiocese isn’t willing to play hardball with the city. Susan Gibbs [right], a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, told me that her organization is committed to serving the poor, regardless of what the laws are in the District, and that it is now looking “to find a way to enable Catholic Charities to keep working in partnership with the city.”

So either the archdiocese will drop benefits for all employees — if it doesn’t provide benefits to married couples, it won’t have to offer them to same-sex couples — or it will follow in the footsteps of Georgetown University, the District’s largest Catholic organization. There, an employee, whether gay or straight, married or not, receives full benefits for himself plus one legally domiciled member of his or her household. This would allow the archdiocese to save face by pretending it isn’t knowingly recognizing gay marriages.

Either accommodation would allow the archdiocese to continue to run its charities. Yet both require a change within the archdiocese. The first would force the archdiocese to drop benefits it had provided in support of traditionally married couples, while the latter would entail a dishonest dodge from an institution built on sincere faith.

Ms. Smith, a former Bartley fellow at the Journal, is a Collegiate Network Journalism fellow at the Weekly Standard.


I actually take issue with Smith’s closing statement. It implies that the “sincere faith” of a Catholic must automatically compel him/her to oppose same-sex marriage. There are many Catholics who faithfully dissent from the clerical leadership’s views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage (though not as many who dissent from this same leadership’s teaching on birth control!). And, more often than not, it’s these Catholics’ “sincere faith” that compels them to dissent. It’s not a faith rooted in unquestioning obedience but in an authentically catholic and sacramental openness to God’s presence throughout the vast arena of human life and relationships.

To be perfectly frank, given what this sacramental perspective (i.e., our openness to what science and human experience) has illuminated for us about the complexity and diversity of human sexuality, I see the Roman Catholic clerical leadership’s ignoring of such insights and its insistence on clinging to an outdated way of thinking about this subject, not as evidence of “sincere faith,” but of “intellectual dishonesty” and fear of change by a group of largely psycho-sexually stunted men, many of whom are closeted gay men and thus deeply homophobic.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
D.C. Council Calls Archdiocese’s Bluff
David R. Weiss: When Charity Becomes the Weapon
“Render Unto Caesar, Bitches!”
America’s New Civil Rights Battle
A Christian Case for Same-Sex Marriage
A Surprising Finding Regarding Catholics and Gay Marriage

Recommended Off-site Link:
A Publicly Funded Charity Should Serve the Public - Mark Levine (
Washington Post, November 18, 2009).


Richard Demma said...

Great final paragraph, Michael, very powerful. I might steal it for further use (with acknowledgments of course).

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks, Jayden! And by all means . . . steal away!



Kittredge Cherry said...

I enjoy your Wild Reed blog and have added it to the blog roll at the Jesus in Love Blog on GLBT spirituality and the arts. I've heard great things about you from Dignity USA and from people who visit my blog. Keep up the good work.

You might enjoy our series on saints of interest to LGBT people and our allies.