The Archdiocese of Washington has criticized a D.C. City Council committee for narrowing the religious freedom exemptions in a bill that would recognize same-sex “marriage.” The archdiocese says the bill leaves religious organizations and individuals at risk of lawsuits for adhering to their beliefs and could endanger Catholic social services.
While the proposed bill presently says religious organizations do not have to participate in the “solemnization or celebration” of a same-sex marriage ceremony, a previous version of the bill had exempted such organizations from having to promote “marriage that is in violation of the entity’s religious beliefs.”
The revised vision, the archdiocese said in a Tuesday statement, “significantly narrows” the exemption to the promotion of marriage “through religious programs, counseling, courses or retreats.”
The archdiocese said that those who refuse to promote and support same-sex “marriages” in a “host of settings where it would compromise their religious beliefs” would risk facing legal action. Such settings could include employee benefits, adoption services and the use of church halls for non-wedding events for same-sex couples.
“Religious organizations such as Catholic Charities could be denied licenses or certification by the government, denied the right to offer adoption and foster care services, or no longer be able to partner with the city to provide social services for the needy,” the archdiocese warned.
According to the Washington Post, churches would have to abide by aspects of the city’s Human Rights Act, which includes a ban on discriminating against homosexual employees who choose to “marry.”
“The bill provides no exemption for individuals with sincerely-held religious beliefs, as required under federal law,” the archdiocese’s statement noted. “In fact, one council member opposed an amendment that would have respected an individual’s federally-protected, deeply-held religious beliefs by saying that would encourage a ‘discriminatory impulse.’”
The archdiocese charged that the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, which is handling the bill, has rejected the concerns voiced in testimony from the archdiocese, the American Civil Liberties Union, the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, and nationally recognized legal scholars.
These experts cited Supreme Court case law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and also the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
The archdiocese has also argued that individuals should be able to exempt themselves from participation in same-sex “weddings” and other activities.
At a city council hearing on Tuesday, Council member Mary M. Cheh questioned why wedding photographers should be allowed to choose the clients they serve.
“That would be discrimination, right?” she asked.
Jane G. Belford, the chancellor of the archdiocese, in a letter to Council member Phil Mendelson, noted the archdiocese’s opposition to the redefinition of marriage in the District but also defended broad religious exemptions if such a law should be passed.
She argued that the bill is not accurately framed as “a clear cut matter of equality and civil rights” but must be seen in the context of balancing competing interests: “The interest of the homosexual community to be able to marry freely and the interests of the religious community to be able to practice religion freely."
Noting that the RFRA requires the District government to burden an individual’s religious practice in the “least restrictive means possible,” Belford said: “The outright prohibition of the observance of a sincerely held religious belief about marriage cannot possibly be said to be the least restrictive means in this case.”
The Washington Post said it was doubtful the archdiocese would be successful.
Edward Orzechowski, president/CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, said his organization was concerned the narrowing of the exemption would cause the government to discontinue its partnership with Catholic Charities and would “open up the agency to litigation and the use of resources to defend our religious beliefs rather than serve the poor.”
The bill is now headed to the full City Council.
The archdiocese said Catholic teachings recognize that all individuals have equal dignity and deserve equal respect, but by its very nature marriage “must be between a man and a woman.”
“One essential purpose of marriage is an openness to creating and nurturing the next generation, which is the reason that governments and cultures throughout all time have given these relationships special recognition and support,” the archdiocese said.
There are over 580,000 Catholics in the District of Columbia and five Maryland counties. In the District there are 40 parishes, 21 Catholic schools and 25 corporations in service to the community.
The archdiocese has set up a website on marriage at http://www.MarriageMattersDC.org.