Catholic Leaders Fight Social Change

Catholic bishops and other church institutions are renewing an aggressive stance against the advance of social polices they see as contrary to their beliefs. The U.S. Catholic bishops pushed for the passage of an amendment to the House health care reform bill limiting the use of taxpayer funds for abortions.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A feud between Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy and the Catholic bishop of Rhode Island erupted this weekend. Kennedy revealed that two years ago Bishop Thomas Tobin asked him to refrain from taking communion because of Kennedy's support for abortion rights. It's the latest volley in an escalating battle around the country over laws that religious leaders say would compromise their religious beliefs.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Next Tuesday, the Washington, D.C. city council is expected to vote on whether to recognize same-sex marriages. If the bill passes, organizations doing business with the city could not discriminate against gay couples. So, if a group offers spousal benefits, it would have to cover gay couples. That's caused the Catholic Church, which considers homosexual practice a sin, to threaten drastic measures.

Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., says Catholic Charities will have to stop contracting with the government to feed the poor or provide shelter to the homeless.

Mr. DONALD WUERL (Archbishop, Washington, D.C.): We shouldn't have to give up our faith convictions, our profoundly held faith convictions, in order to be able to work with the District of Columbia.

HAGERTY: David Catania says that's nonsense.

Mr. DAVID CATANIA (Councilmember, District of Columbia): Catholic Charities is not being forced to abandon their beliefs.

HAGERTY: Catania is the D.C. councilmember who introduced the marriage bill. He says he's offered a compromise to the church, one adopted by the San Francisco Archdiocese, when that city passed a same-sex partnership law 12 years ago. It's a sort of don't ask don't tell policy, where Catholic Charities gives benefits to an employee and one adult in the household and does not ask who that other adult is.

Mr. CATANIA: They do not have to affirmatively recognize, bless or any other thing the marriages of their same-sex employees.

HAGERTY: But Archbishop Wuerl is not satisfied. He says the District of Columbia is asking the Catholic Church to accept a new definition of marriage. And he says the problem is bigger than one city.

Mr. WUERL: I think we're seeing in our country, there is an erosion, a strong cultural and societal erosion of marriage and family as the bedrock of our society.

HAGERTY: Wuerl is one of some 150 conservative Catholic and Protestant leaders who issued a declaration last week that decried what they see as increasing government interference with religion. They cited Martin Luther King and vowed civil disobedience against any laws they said would force them to abandon their beliefs.

They spoke out against not only same-sex marriage, but also stem cell research and the possibility of federal funding for abortion in the health care reform. Robert George, a Catholic and a law professor at Princeton University, who helped draft the manifesto, says the election of Barack Obama and a democratically held Congress has made their fears more acute.

Professor ROBERT GEORGE (Law, Princeton University): That ups the ante very, very considerably. We could've said many of the things that we're saying today a year ago. But some of the things we're saying today have an urgency to them as a result of the new political situation.

HAGERTY: Members of the group claim that churches could have to bless what they consider unholy relationships or that doctors will be forced to perform abortions against their will. Legal experts say these claims are wildly overstated and that religious conservatives are trying to galvanize the troops and regain ground after a crushing political defeat last November.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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