D.C. Archdiocese: Gay Marriage Bill Puts A Leash On Religion

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The Archdiocese of Washington warned the District of Columbia that its Catholic Charities would cease to provide long-standing social services to area residents if same-sex marriage became legal in D.C. The religious-based organization serves nearly 70,000 of the city's needy. Susan Gibbs, of the archdiocese, reacts to the recent D.C. city council vote officially approving gay marriage and tells whether her group intends to keep its promise to withhold services.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And as we have mentioned, prior to the D.C. City Councils passage of the same-sex marriage measure in Washington, the Catholic church warned the District of Columbia that it would halt social services programs run by Catholic Charities here in the city. The sticking point is that the D.C. legislation calls for all those doing business with the city government to extend employee health care benefits to same-sex partners.

The church believes this requirement runs counter to its religious beliefs. Catholic Charities currently provides services that include drug treatment, homeless shelters and foster care among many other services to some 68,000 D.C. residents. We're joined now to hear more about the church's concerns by Susan Gibbs. She's a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Washington. She's also here with me in our studio. Welcome to you as well.

Ms. SUSAN GIBBS (Spokesperson, Archdiocese of Washington): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Just briefly, for those who may not understand, what's the relationship between the archdiocese and Catholic Charities?

Ms. GIBBS: The archdiocese represents the Catholic Church in the region, and Catholic Charities is our largest social service agency. We serve about 68,000 people in the city and about 124,000 throughout the entire region.

MARTIN: Now, I should mention that the president of Catholic Charities issued a statement after the vote saying that the group is committed to trying to find a way to work this issue out. But I would like to just ask you, in your words, what are the church's concerns about this measure? Six states have already -this is the sixth state to pass a same-sex marriage measure and the archdiocese is present, or rather the Catholic Church is present, Catholic Charities are present in all the other jurisdictions that have previously passed this measure. Are there specific concerns related to the District?

Ms. GIBBS: Well, first of all, it's important to know that over 40 states have upheld marriage between a man and a woman. So that's really the trend in our nation. Here in Washington, from the beginning, we opposed the bill because of our understanding of gender being intrinsic to the meaning of marriage. So it's something that was dealing with our theology and our understanding, and not discrimination. We serve everybody. That's very important to us as a church.

But what is at issue in D.C., and our concern was - we're not threatening to walk away. We said from the beginning, we're committed to serving. This is what we do. We've been here since before there was a D.C. We've been serving all that time. We're not walking away. The challenge is, under this bill, the exemptions are so narrow. You don't have to perform the ceremonies and you don't have to teach in religious education. But everything else is kind of an open book, that it would prevent us from - add a new qualification requirement for us to continue providing services and partnership to the city. That's a challenge because of the D.C. contracting process.

MARTIN: What is your chief concern - in other jurisdictions, like for example, in Massachusetts, the Catholic Charities no longer facilitates adoptions because same-sex couples cannot be barred from adopting. And so they no longer facilitate any adoptions. And there have been a couple of states in which there have been specific programs that have been suspended. But - so what specifically are you looking for in this jurisdiction to allow you to continue to function in the way that you have been? Is it specifically about health benefits to same-sex couples?

Ms. GIBBS: It's really when you insert exemptions that are really narrow. The original bill actually was broader in a sense except it said, unless you serve people then you are not exempt from anything. Then they changed the bill and they took away the public accommodation, but then they added in these really serious restrictions. They're extremely narrow. So the problem is if it's not listed as an exemption, you're potentially liable.

That can be things like health benefits, spousal benefits. It could be use of facilities or a lot of different areas. The concern we have in Washington, and what we went back with the council trying to work with them on, its language ought to be consistent with the D.C. Human Rights Act and with other states, the few other states that have actually addressed this issue. It varies by state because, for example, in New Hampshire, they only do private adoptions to Catholic married couples.

So Catholic Charities there has a very different kind of approach to things. But Massachusetts is a really good example. Here's an agency that has been a leader in providing really important services suddenly has to stop. Why? Because there's a new restriction put in place that really shouldn't be put in place.

MARTIN: How is the archdiocese planning to proceed here? For example, the U.S. Conference of Bishops has been vocal in its opposition to certain abortion language or abortion as an issue in the health care overhaul bill currently working its way through Congress. And they've been actively lobbying on this issue. Is the archdiocese planning to lobby Congress? Because Congress also has congressional review, which is unique to the District, in having congressional review of local laws, but that is the way it is. Is the archdiocese planning to lobby Congress on this or are you planning to continue to work with local officials? How do you think this is going to be resolved?

Ms. GIBBS: Well, I think there's couple of things; the health care we're an advocate for health care reform, very strong advocate nationally. That's a national issue and rightfully is in Congress. We're members of D.C. We have been very strong advocates for a long time of D.C. Home Rule, which means D.C. needs to resolve its own issues and we work very closely with the council and we have on a lot of issues. On this one, we've been working with the council trying to come to a resolution. It's unfortunate, it's regrettable that they didn't include broader religious exemptions. But we're still committed to the city and to finding a way that we can continue providing our services, always consistent with our Catholic mission.

MARTIN: Do you believe it will be worked out or can be worked out?

Ms. GIBBS: You know, we're in the business of faith. You've got to have faith. So...

MARTIN: Susan Gibbs is a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Washington. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios also. I thank you for speaking with us.

Ms. GIBBS: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Still to come, a New York Times poll that tells the fears of the unemployed.

Mr. MICHAEL LUO (Reporter, New York Times): I mean, just the idea that you could go from middle class to working poor or working poor to below that, that just really captures fear that's out there.

MARTIN: We talked to the New York Times reporter who wrote the story. That's coming up next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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