Council Members to Catholics: Church Doesn't Write DC's Laws

Lawmakers defy church pressure on DC gay marriage

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    There's little room for compromise with the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington over a proposed same-sex marriage law, D.C. Council members said.

    The church said it won't continue offering more than $10 million in homeless and other social service programs it runs for D.C. if the marriage bill isn't changed because it would require the church to recognize same-sex couples.

    On Tuesday, a council committee voted down an amendment that would protect individuals from legal retribution should they decline services for same-sex marriage based on religious beliefs. Without that broader exemption, the Catholic Church and individuals are "at risk for adhering to the teachings of their faith," according to the archdiocese.

    Catholic Charities has city contracts to provide services to about 68,000 people. The marriage bill would not require churches to perform same-sex weddings, but because Catholic Charities uses city money, the archdiocese fears it would have to offer employee benefits and adoptions to married same-sex couples.

    The marriage legislation is expected to pass next month and has the mayor's support.

    Jane G. Belford, the chancellor of the Washington archdiocese, wrote Councilman Phil Mendelson on Wednesday asking for an exemption to protect the church's religious freedoms. The church wants to be exempt from any measure that would require it to extend benefits to same-sex couples or allow gays and lesbians to adopt children.

    Council member Tommy Wells said it would be dangerous to let the Catholic church start writing D.C. laws, a sentiment expressed by Mendelson and other members.

    "Allowing individual exemptions opens the door for anyone to discriminate based on assertions of religious principle," Mendelson said. "Let's not forget that during the civil rights era, many claimed separation of the races was ordained by God."

    Archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said the law would require city contractors to ignore their religious principles.

    "We are not threatening to walk out of the city," Gibbs said. "The city is the one saying, 'If you want to continue partnering with the city, then you cannot follow your faith teachings.'"

    Catholic Charities, one of dozens of nonprofits that partner with D.C. government, manages city-owned shelters that serve about one-third of Washington's homeless population. The group's contracts totaled $8.2 million in the past three years, according to the city council.

    Council Chairman Vincent Gray said Thursday the city would have to find another group to provide social services if the church backs out. He said he didn't see any room for compromise.

    The church hasn't abandoned social services in New Hampshire, Connecticut or Vermont after they began same-sex marriages, Councilman Jim Graham said.

    In Boston, Catholic Charities has halted city adoption programs because Massachusetts bans public discrimination against same-sex couples.