November 20, 2009 at 1:08 pm EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Gay Catholic group urges city to defy church

Dignity USA, a gay Catholic group, is encouraging the D.C. City Council to ignore calls from the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington to amend the proposed same-sex marriage bill so that the church’s charitable arm can discriminate against gay employees.

Dignity’s comments came after Catholic Charities, which is run by the local archdiocese, said it would discontinue operating dozens of city-funded programs that serve as many as 68,000 low-income people if the Council doesn’t make certain changes in the bill.

“It’s shameful of the church to put its dogmatic position above the needs of the needy people receiving these services,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, Dignity USA’s executive director.

“I would encourage the City Council to say, ‘Fine — we’ll take our programs to another vendor,’” Duddy-Burke said.

An official with the archdiocese said the version of the Religious Freedom & Civil Marriage Equality Act of 2009 approved Nov. 10 by a City Council committee narrowed rather than broadened a religious exemption clause that the archdiocese and other religious groups had been calling for.

The bill does not require religious organizations to perform same-sex marriages or make their facilities available for such marriages. But under existing laws, including the D.C. Human Rights Act, religious organizations such as Catholic Charities would be barred from denying benefits to their employees’ same-sex married spouses.

In a letter to the City Council, Jane Belford, the archdiocese’s chancellor, said the bill’s wording would force Catholic Charities to provide a health insurance benefits plan to its employees in which spousal benefits must be offered to the “same-sex married partner of a gay or lesbian employee.” Doing this would violate Catholic teachings that marriage must be restricted to a man and a woman, she said.

She said the bill also would require Catholic Charities and other religious-oriented social service providers to facilitate an adoption or foster care for a same-sex couple and would require a local religious community to “make its hall available for events inconsistent with the community’s sincere religious beliefs.”

Belford sent her letter to members of the Council’s Committee on Public Safety & Judiciary, which voted 4-1 to approve the marriage bill.

She said the archdiocese could not continue to operate its social service programs under city contracts if the marriage bill doesn’t waive these non-discrimination requirements for Catholic Charities and other religious groups. She noted the bill “does not permit Catholic Charities and other religious service organizations to freely function as religious entities serving the needs of District residents.”

Literature on the archdiocese’s web site says Catholic Charities provides services to 68,000 people in the District. It says the group, among other activities, operates city-owned homeless shelters that serve one-third of the city’s homeless population.

Raymond Panas, president of Dignity Washington, said he doesn’t believe the threat by the archdiocese to withdraw its services to the needy.

“While this may be the decision of the hierarchy, it certainly does not reflect the views of all of us who were baptized as Catholics and make up part of the Catholic Church,” Panas said.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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