D.C. Council Rebuffs Bishops On Exemption To Same-Sex Marriage Law

The District of Columbia Council voted 11-2 last month to permit same-sex couples to marry in the nation’s capital, ignoring threats from the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which had demanded a broad religious exemption from the measure.

The dispute began in November as the proposal neared passage. The legislation makes it clear that no house of worship will be required to perform a marriage ceremony that violates its religious beliefs and allows churches and religious organizations to refuse to offer their facilities or services for marriages they do not recognize.

The Archdiocese said that wasn’t enough. In mid-November, church officials announced that if the marriage bill did not exempt publicly funded “faith-based” organizations from abiding by civil rights laws that protect same-sex couples, the church might stop accepting government funding to perform social services.

Church officials also said they should not be compelled to place children in foster care in the homes of same-sex couples or provide adoption services to such couples.

Critics, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said church officials were bluffing. AU pointed out that in 2008, Catholic Charities DC, the social service arm of the archdiocese, received $16 million of its $23 million budget through governmental contracts. The Archdiocese, AU said, was unlikely to walk away from that.

Americans United joined several other civil liberties and religious groups in a Nov. 20 letter to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, urging the council not to give in to the Archdiocese’s demands.

The letter noted that Catholic Charities DC is already covered by anti-discrimination laws.

“Catholic Charities has been subject for decades to the D.C. Human Rights Act’s prohibition on discrimination by places of public accommodation, which from the beginning has included a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation,” observed the letter. “Thus, the passage of a law extending the freedom to marry to same-sex couples does nothing to change Catholic Charities’ existing obligations regarding non-discrimination in the provision of adoption and foster care services.”

Council members vowed not to alter the bill, and it passed Dec. 15.