Toward a sensible religious accommodation in DC

by on December 6, 2009  •  In Marriage, Religion

In my view, when the legal consequences of same-sex marriage or civil rights laws affect religious providers of social services, both the law enforcement authorities and the sectarian groups should stretch to find a solution that allows the anti-discrimination principle to take effect while not forcing the religious entity to actively endorse a tenet which runs counter to its faith.  When this cannot be achieved and when the religious groups are receiving public funds, human services officials should have the discretion to suspend enforcement of an anti-discrimination mandate until equivalent services can be obtained, with the caveat that a transition must genuinely go forward.

In other words, I support a phase-in period when applying an anti-discrimination law to government contractors that claim a religious objection, if necessary to protect a vulnerable population.

In DC, this kind of situation has arisen because Archbishop Wuerl has threatened to stop providing a variety of services to indigent residents, for which Catholic agencies receive roughly $20 million a year in government funds. The top priority should be to insure that the people receiving those services experience no harm if a changeover to other providers is required, but there is no reason that an orderly transition cannot take place.

Compromise may still avert this kind of hostage-taking of defenseless people. Negotiations in DC are ongoing to find language that could be adopted a week from Tuesday (Dec 15), when the Council takes its final vote and will, with or without a workaround for the Archdiocese, adopt the marriage bill. (Because DC laws must remain in limbo for potential Congressional review, same-sex marriages are not likely to become actually available until sometime in the spring.)

From a Washington Post editorial:

Catholic Charities's intransigence is mystifying. The fight going on in the District today took place 13 years ago in San Francisco.

When that city's Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a law requiring city contractors to provide spousal benefits to domestic partners, Archbishop William J. Levada protested. He raised the same objections we're hearing today. But a compromise was reached after a meeting with then-Mayor Willie Brown and four supervisors. A business or agency with a city contract is in compliance with the law if it "allows each employee to designate a legally domiciled member of the employee's household as being eligible for spousal equivalent benefits." Georgetown University provides another model. It provides medical, dental and vision coverage to an employee's spouse or a "legally domiciled adult" defined as someone 18 or older who has lived with the employee for at least six months. A "Legally Domiciled Adult Certification Form" must be filed.

These two models [now being offered by DC Councilmembers] are worthy compromises that should allow the Catholic Charities to be within the law without violating church principles.


2 Responses to Toward a sensible religious accommodation in DC

  1. Prup (aka Jim Benton) December 9, 2009 at 11:43 AM

    Nan: Ordinarily I would agree with your reasoning on this, but I think you give the Diocese — in this case — too much credit for acting in good faith. I don’t believe they are looking for a sensible compromise on their specific concerns. I think they are simply finding any excuse to kill the bill, and are using the recipients of their social services as ‘human shields.’

    I have little doubt that they would seek and find flaws in any compromise offered. In fact, I see no connection between the services supplied by Catholic Charities and ‘marital status’ at all in almost any circumstances. (Do they check marital status before allowing people into homeless shelters, or before providing home visits or meals to the aged? How many of the people working for the organization are neither clergy — who, by Catholic doctrine can’t be married to anyone — volunteers, who would receive no benefits in any case, and who could be at least discouraged if they were married to someone of their own gender, or so low paid that they do not receive benefits anyway? Maybe a dozen?)

    This is not about ‘providing benefits’ it is about blackmailing the city into prohibiting marriage equality.

  2. Gib Wallis December 29, 2009 at 12:51 PM

    As for the transition period, I’m not sure how that is different from the time period judges give before a ruling goes into effect.

    Presumably interested parties may file amicus curiae briefs to state the impact on their circumstances and judges take that into consideration.

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