Friday, November 13, 2009

The Catholic Church's red herring

To hear the Catholic Church tell it, if same-sex couples can marry in DC they will have to stop providing social services here. At least that's their threat, as reported earlier this week in the Washington Post. I heard the same thing at the October 26 committee hearing. Their representative said the marriage equality bill would "hurt the people who count on Catholic Charities." (To view the whole hearing click here and select the October 26 meeting of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary). After their representative lamented about what would happen when they sought relicensing as a foster care agency, Committee Chair Phil Mendelson asked why foster care would be implicated and the answer was that the Catholic Charities would not place children with same-sex couples.

Well I have news for the church (except I suspect it's not news to them). For more than 30 years it has been unlawful to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and marital status in the provision of services in the District of Columbia. Catholic Charities operates in a discriminatory manner because no one has challenged them. Lesbians and gay men understandably go elsewhere to be licensed as foster or adoptive parents, and no one has asked the District of Columbia to stop funding Catholic Charities.

What the church seeks in the marriage equality bill has nothing to do with marriage. They have what they are entitled to in that respect -- the right not to conduct marriages of same-sex couples. That is a completely uncontroversial and constitutionally mandated provision. What Catholic Charities seeks is immunity from existing civil rights laws that predate marriage equality by decades and will continue to exist regardless of whether same-sex couples are allowed to marry in the District of Columbia.

Councilmembers show no inclination to exempt Catholic Charities from those laws. Good for them. Looking the other way is one thing; affirmatively approving discrimination is another. If this matter comes to a head in the city, it is entirely the responsibility of the church itself for thinking it could confuse lawmakers and the public by conflating marriage for same-sex couples and nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the provision of services. So far, we are not confused.

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