Catholic Charities Vs. D.C. Marriage Equality

Having lost the battle to derail Washington, D.C.’s new marriage equality law, Catholic Charities has settled on two anti-gay family measures:  It has discarded its adoption program and cut employee benefits.

On March 3, same sex couples jubilantly lined up in D.C. Superior Court to apply for marriage licenses,  as enthusiastic supporters sang outside.

I imagine the mood was  less cheery at  Catholic Charities. There, employees had just lost an important benefit. Rather than be forced to cover same-sex spouses, Catholic Charities took away all spousal benefits. Current employees whose spouses are covered will be grandfathered, but everyone else, new or long-employed, gay or straight, are out of luck. Employees received one day’s notice about the change.

Ironically, the Maryland Catholic Conference, through which the Archdiocese of Washington does its social justice work, advocates policies that “help businesses provide health coverage to their employees and assist individuals in acquiring coverage for themselves and their families.”

Catholic Charities could have danced around the hierarchical ban on gay families in the same way that Georgetown University does. Georgetown, a Jesuit institution, allows employees to designate an adult with whom they live–a relative, friend or partner–to receive  benefits. “The thinking is if everybody is getting these benefits, we’ll distribute them equally,” says Rev. Dr. Joseph Palacios, assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown and cofounder of Catholics United for Marriage Equality.

I asked Erik Salmi, senior communications manager of Catholic Charities, if they’d considered this option. He said they’d studied several alternatives, and cutting benefits “was determined to be the best fit.” He denied, as some have charged, that the move was motivated by a desire to save money.

The benefits take-away was the second salvo in as many weeks lobbed by the Archdiocese of Washington against gay families. On February 16, Catholic Charities shed its foster care and public adoption program rather than place children in households with same-sex parents. When I asked Salmi how they’d handled this in the past, since D.C.’s Human Rights Law bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, he said no gay couples had ever applied.

Palacios, whose group has 200 supporters, points to national polls that suggest rank-and-file Catholics are ahead of the Vatican and of the U.S. public on gay rights issues. According to survey data compiled in 2008 by Public Religion Research, 58 percent of Catholics say that homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared to a bare majority of the overall public, and six in 10 Catholics support adoption by gay and lesbian couples. Young Catholics in particular are ignoring church doctrine: 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds support same-sex marriage.

If only the church were a democracy.

ABOVE: Julie Drizin and Ellen Kahn with daughters Jasper and Ruby celebrate receiving their marriage license. Photo courtesy of Shauna Miller/Capital News Service.


  1. It’s not the first time the Catholic Church is behind the times, and it won’t be the last!

  2. This is the challenge when millennia of dogma rub up against somewhat novel situations. I have a hard time believing the intent of Catholicism would be to inhibit love and equality. But some specific rulings on the meanings of some specific passages in a specific text, made centuries ago carries more momentum than the groundswell of support for marriage quality among believers.

    I find it comforting that a solid majority of Catholics support these issues. In the end (and the church hierarchy probably knows this) a religion is defined by the beliefs and actions of its members.

  3. Once again, the Church is on the wrong side. Sigh. While I believe that Catholic Charities is trying to be true to what they see are fundamental Catholic values, I worry about backlash from those employees who lose the chance to have a spouse added on to their health care policy. Is this move fueling homophobia? My cynical side smells a divide and conquer strategy. Does anyone know that side of the dynamic within the Catholic Charities workforce?

  4. maureen o'connell says:

    It is truly sad to learn that D.C.’s Catholic Charities is willing to hurt so many existing families (denying spousal benefits to employees) and future families (eliminating foster care and adoption programs) in the name of religion. I hope someone is praying for the folks who made such harmful decisions.

  5. Sounds like the employees who work at Catholic Charities should form a union. If they did, they would have a voice in decisions like this one and protection against cuts in benefits. Thanks for this great story!

  6. Shame on Catholic Charlities. What ever happened to “Love thy neighbor”?

  7. Eventually, if the Church is to survive, its dinosaurs will all die and younger, more compassionate and aware clergy, if such can be found, will take their places. As it now stands, the Church can hardly speak from the moral high ground, given the disclosure of its disgraceful handling of miscreant priests over the years.

  8. Great article! It’s sad that, when other responses were clearly available, like Georgetown University’s, Catholic Charities chose the ones it did. I am glad to know that church members are ahead of their “leadership” on this one.

  9. The Church is on the wrong side of history here. That’s scant comfort, of course, to the employees who would have taken advantage of the spousal insurance benefit. (I hope that other agencies will take up the slack on the foster care and adoption services.) But let’s not lose the forest for the trees: the big story is that the DC Marriage Equality Act is a tremendous (if localized) step forward in the struggle for civil rights, respect, and full inclusion in the human family.

  10. Wonderful article and thoughtful comments. This controversy is going to continue for some time and I certainly hope your coverage will, too.

  11. Kay Daniels-Cohen says:

    A really informative article…well written and covers the information clearly and concisely…as for the Catholic Charities…they may need to step up to the times…it is indeed quite shameful to withhold benefits from their people because the Catholic Charities disagree with the Government of the District of Columbia and hooray for WDC for being on the leading edge of some very powerful and cutting edge legislation!!!

  12. Wonderful story, tragic facts. While I am not at all surprised by the Vatican’s medieval stance on equal rights in the human family, I am dismayed that Catholic Charities, well known for their work among the mentally ill, for one, would take such an obviously biased approach to their interpretation of Vatican dictates. WIll the Vatican ever progress? God knows. But the society is progressing, nonetheless, as evidenced by the passage of the DC Marriage Equality Act, and progressive Catholics will continue to have to measure the injustice of the Vatican’s rulings against the voices of their own hearts and minds.

  13. Victor Carballo says:

    Unbelievable. Glenn Beck think that social justice is a code word for Nazism, and the Catholic Church thinks that gay marriage is the Apocalypse. I wonder what Catholic Charities will do when this country begins recognizing non-specified gender, as has just happened in Australia.

  14. I am a gay man who lives in Missouri-where we still can not get married legally. Fortunately, my partners employer (the largest physical therapy provider in the U. S.) offers domestic partner health insurance (at $300 per month) which we take advantage of and are very thankful for. Certain sectors of society are recognizing that allowing same sex marriage is a civil right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America. Allowing certain misinterpreted, CHOSEN scriptures from the Bible to take away the same sex marriage right is WRONG. Leave it to religion and religious beliefs to ALLOW discrimination. Church and state should be separated-in my opinion. It’s reassuring that the majority of the population feel that the same rights should be given to gay people. Someday, as an earlier poster pointed out, all of the old dinosaurs will eventually die along with all of the old unjust opinions, and deserved human rights will prevail. Remember how slavery and the voting rights that women didn’t used to have were legal? Thank you for allowing me to voice my opinion. A hopeful gay man in the “Bible Belt”.

  15. Thanks for this post. As a queer Catholic, I am particularly interested in this topic, and look forward to reading more about church politics and the LGBT equality movement.

  16. This is the kind of moral judgment that drove me out of the Catholic Church decades ago. It evidences a primitive level of moral development, more appropriate to tribal societies of old than to educated and intelligent modern folk. Why, when the Church was founded by the merciful and loving Jesus, does it consistently side with the vengeful and nasty God of the Old Testament? As a teen, I could not believe in a God who would condemn people to eternal damnation because they were born in the wrong place and called him by the wrong name. Nor can I believe in a God who condemns people for loving the wrong others. Does it not occur to the Church hierarchy that it is undermining people’s faith with its profoundly un-Christian interpretations?

  17. Imagine that! Catholic charities that are neither catholic nor charitable. I am no longer surprised by the Catholic Church heirerarchy when, confronted with a fork in the policy road, they take the road less travelled by compassion and love of thy neighbors.

  18. Mary from Niceville says:

    My parents were devout Catholics, yet my father never gave a penny to Catholic Charities during his life. Instead, he gave faithfully to the Salvation Army. Why? Because over 50 years ago Catholic Charities turned away my aunt (Dad’s sister) and her two small children when they were in dire need, but Salvation Army took them in with open arms, no questions asked. I had a similar hideous experience with Catholic Charities in my late teens. So this kind of behavior is nothing new for “Catholic Charities,” which as pointed out above, is completely undeserving of the name.

  19. Jack Glaser says:

    I am a Catholic moral theologian. I regret that we Catholics have forgotten (or never fully realized) that talking morality is–at best, and when we do it right–our second language. Our first language is gratitude and wonder at a Trinity of love who embraces every person and all human history. The sermon we preach when we “strain at gnats”–as this DC Charities action preaches–is of a tiny god, preoccupied with tight-fisted issues. How sad, when there is so much Easter to celebrate. The good news is that the Tinity, not the bureaucracies of religion, has the last and best word.

  20. Though Catholic Charities must follow the doctrines of the Vatican now, it won’t be long before their ways become untenable to their parishioners. Your polls tell the true story, and one that will continue to turn, as the tides have done drastically in the last 10 years. Just consider that Mexico City and Buenos Aires, cities that are in the heart of Catholic countries, have already broken away from the Churches dictums. And then there is the country of Spain. Once the corner is turned there is no going back. Imagine if we tried to ban inter-racial marriages again. So we remain hopeful, and thank the people like the smiling family in your photo, who are out, happy, and have many friends who love them, I’m sure. As each person comes out, more people understand. Once ignorance and fear are conquered, there’s no turning back. Thanks, Beth for a great article.

  21. Beth, Thank you for your wonderful article.
    I am so sad that our Catholic Church is hurting so many wonderful people. But also know that the church is the people in the pews and not the people making the rules. Change comes from the bottom up and it takes a long time for it to reach the top. In the meantime we keep praying for the people making the decisions that at some point justice will prevail.

  22. It is shocking to me that a non-profit group would take away spousal benefits just to safeguard their antiquated prejudices.

  23. Frank & Karen says:

    Catholic leaders remind us of Republican leaders who say they know what Americans want when what they’re really doing is defending their ideologies. This was a very thoughtful article on a very important subject.

  24. Michele Morgan says:

    The more honest and complete information is made public, as in this blog entry, the sooner a church or any organization’s “sins” can be stopped. The hypocrisy of the religious/patriotic attacks on gays by organizations that protect/support child abuse must be brought to light.

  25. Dear Friends, Happy Easter 2010!!

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