Same-sex marriage law in D.C. could ‘suppress’ Catholic institutions, archdiocese warns

The D.C. City Council
The D.C. City Council


A Washington, D.C. City Council proposal to recognize same-sex “marriage” would redefine marriage and could force Catholic educational and charitable institutions to close or face lawsuits, burdensome regulation and the compromising of their faith, the Archdiocese of Washington has warned.

The proposed law, called the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009, redefines marriage as “the legally recognized union of two people.” It says a religious association or a non-profit associated with a religion shall not be required to provide services, accommodations, facilities or goods related to the solemnization, celebration or promotion of a marriage that is in violation of the entity’s religious beliefs unless the entity makes those services available to members of the general public.

Representatives of the archdiocese spoke at an Oct. 26 hearing before the D.C. City Council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary. They argued that the law would endanger Catholic services to the general public.

In written testimony, the archdiocese opposed the legislation and “any effort to redefine marriage as any other than that between a man and a woman.” The archdiocese voiced “deep concerns” that the bill would restrict religious freedom if it is passed as drafted.

To continue the archdiocese’s service to the poor of the District of Columbia, the archdiocese testified, a “meaningful” religious exemption is needed to ensure that the government “will not suppress its religious exercise in such a way.”

In its support, the archdiocese cited a legal analysis of the bill by the Williams & Connolly law firm, which said the expected effect of the bill would put the archdiocese in an “untenable” position under the First Amendment unless religious conscience protections are expanded.

“The District will effectively force the Archdiocese either to violate the law or to abandon forms of religious practice – care for the poor, hungry and homeless – that are fundamental to the practice of Catholic social teaching,” the law firm commented.

In addition to overturning the definition of marriage, the legislation has no exemptions for churches, religious organizations such as the Knights of Columbus or religiously-owned nonprofits such as Catholic Charities if they provide services to the general public or rent space to individuals or groups outside of their faith.

According to the archdiocese, six prominent legal scholars including Prof. Robin Fretwell Wilson of Washington & Lee University have independently submitted a letter to City Council Chairman detailing serious religious freedom problems with the legislation.

“They note that religious organizations are at risk of lawsuits if, for example, they decline to offer their facilities to same sex couples or to limit married student housing to couples of the opposite sex,” the archdiocese said in a press release.

Other risks for religious organizations and individuals who cannot recognize same-sex “marriages” include the denial of access to government contracts and access to government facilities, such as leases. Licenses for objecting doctors and social workers could be revoked while child care licenses could be denied.

The proposed law could also allow lawsuits against those who do not provide same-sex benefits to employees and could result in the revocation of the accreditation of religious colleges.

“This would have serious implications in the District of Columbia, where Catholic Charities provides foster care and adoption services for nearly 100 children every year as well as shelter every night for nearly one in three of the city’s homeless men, women and children under contracts with the city, which cannot provide these services itself as efficiently and cost effectively,” the Archdiocese of Washington said.

“Every year, Catholic Charities provides shelter, food, counseling, medical and legal assistance, and more to 68,000 people in the District of Columbia regardless of their faith,” explained Ed Orzechowski, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. “If the Council passes this bill as written, these programs are at risk along with nearly 100 different parish social ministry programs, all of the other ministries operated by the Catholic Church and even meeting space for groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Scouts and neighborhood organizations who partner with churches.”

The lack of an adequate exemption, the archdiocese said, would require religious organizations and individuals to choose “between exercising their faith and following the law.” This would cause “division and dissatisfaction” among the citizens of D.C., it warned.