Calling The Bishops’ Bluff

D.C. Council Should Stand Firm Against Discrimination

The Washington, D.C., Council is preparing to pass a law legalizing same-sex marriage in the city.

The legislation makes it clear that no church will be required to perform these ceremonies or make space available for them. The First Amendment requires no less.

But leaders of the Catholic archdiocese say that’s not enough. They want a much broader exemption, one that would allow virtually any enterprise or individual to claim a religious liberty right to discriminate against gay couples. The Catholic archdiocese is particularly intent on exempting its social-service arm from the proposed law’s reach.

Many of the services provided by Catholic Charities are publicly funded. Catholic Charities of D.C. had a budget of $23 million for the fiscal year that ended in June of 2008, and $16 million of it came from the government.

The church’s response to the new D.C. law has been outrageous: Church officials have told the council to modify the law, or they will stop providing social services. In effect, the church is saying, “Do things our way, or we’ll stop taking public money.”

It’s remarkably arrogant – and it’s a hollow threat. Catholic Charities has become so dependent on public money that it’s doubtful the organization could survive without it. In any case, the Council should not hesitate to call the church’s bluff.

If Catholic Charities is serious about this threat, if it truly intends to stop providing services to people because it feels an overarching need to discriminate against same-sex couples, then this is prima facie evidence that the church does not deserve these contracts.

D.C. Council member David Catania said it best: “If they find living under our laws so oppressive that they can no longer take city resources, the city will have to find an alternative partner to step in to fill the shoes.”

That’s exactly right. These are public funds we’re talking about. The D.C. government has the right to put conditions on the organizations that receive those monies. In fact, it’s more than a right – it’s an obligation.

No tax money should be awarded to “faith-based” organizations that want to elevate their dogma over civil-rights laws. Catholic Charities may be unwilling to follow a few simple rules to qualify for the millions it receives in tax support every year, but it’s likely there are other organizations out there that would be happy to do so.

The bishops are free to play hardball if they like, but there’s no reason why government officials in D.C. or anywhere else are obligated to play along.