D.C. Catholic Charities Refuses Spousal Benefits to Workers Gay and Straight

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday March 2, 2010

Rather than provide family benefits to gay and lesbian employees, the social services branch of the Washington, D.C. Roman Catholic diocese has determined that it will simply not extend such benefits at all to new hires or to existing employees who were not previously enrolled.

Church doctrine says that gays are "disordered," and church authorities view sexual expressions of love and affection between individuals of the same gender as being "intrinsically evil." For that reason, Catholic Charities--which contracts with the District to provide services to the tune of $22 million per year in taxpayer money--has stepped back from its role in caring for foster children, rather than place needy children with two mothers or two fathers. Instead, the church has given over the 43 children with whom it was working, and the seven people who had been on the staff of its charitable organization, to a secular organization, the National Center for Children and Families.

The group now says that it will no longer accept new enrollees of any sexual orientation in its family benefits package, rather than be compelled to offer coverage to gay or lesbian spouses in the wake of a new marriage equality ordinance slated to take effect on March 3, reported a Washington Post article from March 2.

"We looked at all the options and implications," Edward J. Orzechowski, who presides over the D.C., branch of Catholic Charities, said. "This allows us to continue providing services, comply with the city's new requirements and remain faithful to the church's teaching."

Marriage supporter Tommy Wells, a D.C., councilmember who voted in favor of bringing marriage equality to the nation's capital, said that the charity has every right to determined who it will allow into its coverage package. "Catholic Charities is a private, nonprofit corporation," noted Wells. "They can choose to provide benefits to families and spouses or not. I hope that it's not just a runaround to keep from doing things they should do, but it's within their purview to decide what to offer their employees."

"For decades, the church has been at the forefront of worker benefits, so this move cuts against their understanding of social justice and health benefits to all possible," said George Washington University's Robert Tuttle, a church and state scholar. "But obviously, you can see they felt there was a real conflict between those values. They feel they weren't left with much of a choice."

The question of whether equal rights for gay and lesbian families is fully compatible with the rights of religious Americans is hotly contested, with some Christian conservatives claiming that their freedom of worship is endangered by laws that grant family parity to GLBTs. In a Jan. 9 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Emily Esfahani Smith argued that the new law would force "unwanted change within the Catholic Church," going on to write that, "The archdiocese was not a particularly strong advocate against gay marriage in the District, but it did press for a religious exemption to be added to the same-sex marriage bill." Smith noted that, "Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont all have broad religious protections in their gay marriage laws, which allow gay couples to marry but do not require religious organizations to recognize those marriages. But the City Council refused to add a religious exemption to its bill."

Those arguments continue, and anti-gay activists have sought a stay on the new law from the U.S. Supreme Court. But assuming that marriage equality goes ahead in Washington, D.C., Catholic Charities is poised to go forward without need for further "unwanted changes." Said Orzechowski, "We do not anticipate any further changes whatsoever. Taking the action we have on foster care and spousal we feel has addressed everything the new law requires of us."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.