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Church, state and marriage

November 18, 2009

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington is warning the District of Columbia Council that the church will stop contracting to provide social services if the city approves same-sex marriage as planned. To which the only valid response is, "OK."

The church hopes to change wording in the marriage legislation that could require its charitable arm, Catholic Charities, to facilitate adoptions to gay and lesbian couples and extend employee benefits to spouses in same-sex marriages. That, the church says, would require it to go against its religious teachings on homosexuality.

There are times when the aims of government and religious organizations are in sync: bringing food to the hungry, beds to the homeless and medical care to the sick. At other times, their aims veer apart. That's fine, but at such times, government must not be diverted from its own course. The District of Columbia Council is expected to approve same-sex marriage next month. If it does, those marriages must receive the same recognition as all other marriages, at least in matters under the city's jurisdiction. The council cannot dictate how a religious organization spends its private money, but it has an obligation to set rules for the use of public funds.

This is a situation the Catholic Church has faced before, most notably after Massachusetts banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. As a contractor with the state for adoption services, Catholic Charities placed hard-to-adopt children in gay and lesbian households until the church hierarchy pressured it to stop. It ended its contract with the state and closed its adoption service. But Catholic Charities could have continued doing private adoptions with church money, as the Mormon Church does. No one was telling the nonprofit how to practice religion -- just how it could and could not use state funds.

So far, the District of Columbia Council is showing more backbone on this issue than the Obama administration. Barack Obama promised during his presidential campaign that he would end the practice of allowing faith-based groups receiving federal money to discriminate in hiring -- for example, by not employing people who hold other religious beliefs. But he has backed off from that vow. In contrast, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said the city would find another contractor if the Catholic Church severed its ties. That was the right response, and we hope it rang loud enough for Obama to hear.

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