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Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington has been forced to drop health benefits for spouses of employees because of Washington, D.C.’s new same-sex “marriage” law.
BY JOAN FRAWLEY DESMONDREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
WASHINGTON — When the Council of the
District of Columbia signaled its plan to legalize same-sex “marriage” in
November 2009, Archbishop Donald Wuerl warned that the move could force the
closing of Catholic foster care and adoption programs with city contracts.
In late February, the archbishop
made good on that warning, ending Catholic Charities’ city contracts for
Then, on March 1, a day before
same-sex “marriage” became legal in the district, the other shoe dropped:
Spousal benefits would no longer be available for new hires at Catholic
Charities or for staff who might marry in the future.
“Catholic Charities will continue to
honor the health-plan coverage that current employees have as of March 1, 2010.
As of March 2, a new plan will be in effect that will cover new employees and
requests for benefit changes by current employees,” stated a memo issued by
Catholic Charities’ President and CEO Edward Orzechowski.
“We sincerely regret that we have to
make this change,” the memo continued, “but it is necessary to allow Catholic
Charities to continue to provide essential services to the clients we serve in
partnership with the District of Columbia while remaining consistent with the
tenets of our religious faith.”
The conclusion of a painful internal
debate within the archdiocese, Archbishop Wuerl’s decision underscores the
challenge legal same-sex “marriage” poses for Catholic bishops charged with
defending traditional marriage while securing the future stability of their
From the beginning, the archbishop’s
sober reaction sparked criticism.
Several city council members openly
dismissed the Church’s concerns, with Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) describing its
stance as “somewhat childish.” News stories and letters to the editor in The
Washington Post featured skeptical reactions from local Catholics
who worried that their Church’s position was intolerant and needlessly
jeopardized critical services to the poor.
Over the past three months,
Archbishop Wuerl has struggled to gain traction for his argument that the
council’s narrow religious exemption made compliance with city contracts untenable
for Catholic agencies.
“Unlike legislation dealing with
same-sex ‘marriage’ in other parts of the country, the district offers no
provision for any type of religious exemption,” noted the archbishop, as he
unveiled his new policy.
“Further, the district has redefined
marriage in such a way that anyone working with the city must demonstrate they
are in compliance with the implications of this new law,” he said.
During the ensuing months since the
D.C. Council first took up the issue of same-sex “marriage,” some local
Catholic leaders and donors questioned the need for drastic action.
‘San Francisco Option’
Still, a significant number of legal
scholars, including some who endorse same-sex “marriage,” have argued that the
D.C. Council’s language was too restrictive and the archbishop was right to
challenge it. The archdiocese submitted a letter to the elections board calling
for a referendum on same-sex “marriage,” and Archbishop Wuerl directed local
pastors to raise the issue from the pulpit.
The referendum effort hit a final
roadblock March 2, when Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts Jr.
denied a request by same-sex “marriage” opponents to stay the district’s law.
The following day same-sex couples lined up to apply for a marriage license.
“There are council members who have
argued that religious freedom means that priests won’t have to marry same-sex
couples. My reaction is: You can’t be serious; that is not religious freedom,”
said Robert Destro, a law professor at The Catholic University of America and
the director and founder of its Interdisciplinary Program in Law &
Archbishop Wuerl reached a similar
“As an agency supervising foster
care and adoption placements, Catholic Charities must confirm the suitability
of the couple with whom the child will be placed. If we signed the new city
contracts, that requirement would bring the agency into an active role in
confirming this new definition of marriage,” said the archbishop.
The plan to close the
child-placement programs follows the path of several other dioceses that have
grappled with the advent of legal same-sex “marriage.”
But Archbishop Wuerl and Catholic
Charities’ administrators still had to tackle a second conundrum introduced
through the specific language of the district’s new law: Could they continue to
provide spousal benefits without lending moral credence to same-sex “marriage”?
Catholic Charities here employs about 900 people.
Some advisers suggested that the
archbishop could finesse the issue by adopting the so-called “San Francisco
option” — provide benefits to one other individual residing in an employee’s
The San Francisco option was
initiated by then-San Francisco Archbishop William Levada (now a cardinal and
prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) to bring his
agencies into compliance with a city law governing benefits for same-sex
domestic partners — in a state that still upheld the traditional definition of
By contrast, Catholic Charities in
Washington, D.C., confronted a new law that redefined marriage to include
same-sex unions and directed agencies with city contracts to grant benefits to
all legal spouses.
Archbishop Wuerl concluded that
compliance with the new law might “create confusion.” In his view, the
only alternative was to restructure the
whole benefits plan while still allowing Catholic Charities to continue its
service to the poor and needy.”
Another Challenge Ahead
No doubt the decision to end spousal
benefits will provoke even more controversy — and could affect the recruitment
and retention of Catholic Charities’ employees.
Catholic Charities’ administrators
have struggled to minimize the impact of the recent policy changes.
For example, by the time the
archbishop had closed the archdiocese’s child-placement services, Orzechowski
had transferred the entire caseload to another agency, the National Center for
Children and Families. It shared Catholic Charities’ philosophy on forming
partnerships with foster families and securing permanent placements for
“We were looking for an agency that
would take all of the children, families, siblings and staff. That was the best
and least troublesome approach from a child’s point of view,” said Orzechowski.
At present, Catholic Charities receives
about $20 million from the district for a spectrum of social services,
including homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Archbishop Wuerl sought to
protect those remaining contracts, even as he defended the Church’s right to
provide services in accordance with its moral precepts.
When news reports first registered
the archdiocese’s concerns about the district’s same-sex “marriage” bill,
opponents of the Church’s stance suggested it should be disqualified from
participating in city contracts.
Meanwhile, experts who agree with
archdiocesan policies on foster care and adoption regret that its natural-law arguments have
become a flash point in the culture wars.
“Hostility toward Christian morality
is leading many people to ignore the science that tells us what is good for
children. Children do best when both a mother and father live in the home,”
said Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, author of Adult and Child, a
textbook published by the American Psychological Association, and a professor
at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family
in Washington, D.C.
For now, the archdiocese doesn’t
anticipate any further disruption of its social services. But the Baltimore
Archdiocese may soon be drawn into a similar struggle: Maryland’s attorney
general just proposed that the state recognize same-sex “marriages” performed
outside its borders.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase,