December 1, 2009
By Ryan Messmore, D.Phil.
Catholic Charities is the social services arm of the Catholic Church, and each year 68,000 people in the District benefit from its work. However, some of these programs may be in jeopardy.
On Dec. 1, the D.C. Council will vote on a same-sex marriage bill that could lead to Catholic Charities halting much of its operations in the District.
The group operates 63 programs for D.C. residents in need. It is the largest nongovernmental social services provider in the nation's capital. These services include:
9,600 homeless men, women and children (one-third of the D.C. homeless population) who turn to it for shelter and food;
200 children who benefit from its foster care, adoption and child abuse prevention programs;
223 children who are rescued from abusive situations and abandonment;
30 pregnant and parenting teens and their children who are given safety and specialized care; and
1,000-plus prison inmates who receive mentoring, information referrals and re-entry support.
At issue is the fact that D.C. government partners with Catholic Charities to serve residents' needs. If the group refuses to abide by new regulations in the bill, the city could threaten lawsuits, denial of funds and the loss of necessary licenses.
For example, if same-sex marriage becomes law, the archdiocese doesn't believe it would be permitted to continue an employee benefits plan that covered spouses only of the opposite sex.
It also fears that Catholic Charities programs would be subject to litigation or loss of licenses and tax-exempt status for refusing to offer services, like adoption placements, that it believed endorsed same-sex marriage.
If the bill passes as expected, the D.C. Council will create a situation in which answering the call to serve those in need could force Catholic Charities to violate either the law or its faith. Several years ago in Boston, Catholic Charities closed the doors of its adoption agency there rather than violate church teaching against placing children with same-sex couples.
Members of the D.C. Council have stated their desire for the archdiocese to continue offering services despite the potential for compromising its faith. Faith is what motivates many charitable groups to do what they do, and it also shapes the way they do it.
If the government contracts with such groups to meet public needs, it should protect what makes their services so effective in the first place. So far the D.C. Council seems unwilling to adequately safeguard the religious freedom of organizations like Catholic Charities.
Although the bill contains an exemption, it may not be broad enough to allow religious organizations to freely operate as religious entities serving District residents. The range of services Catholic Charities provides reaches well beyond the "religious programs, counseling, courses, or retreats" explicitly protected in the exemption.
To the extent Catholic Charities is forced to stop offering social services in order to preserve its religious integrity, more than just the Catholic Church stands to lose out -- many of the neediest District residents could also suffer. For many of the 68,000 orphans, abused children, prisoners, unemployed, hungry, sick and homeless persons who depend upon Catholic Charities programs, the council's decision could end up feeling more like a curse than a blessing.
The definition of marriage is a complex issue with many factors to consider. It cannot -- and should not -- be decided solely on the likely implications for one organization.
The positive role that religious institutions play in society -- a role that the First Amendment was intended to protect and encourage -- should be carefully weighed in the ongoing marriage debate.
Ryan Messmore is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in Washington Examiner
Family & Religion Initiative of the Leadership for America Campaign
Ryan Messmore, D.Phil.
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