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.

Read more coverage of LGBTQ+ issues from Ms


Beth Baker is a long-time freelance writer in the Washington, D.C. area and author most recently of Old Age in a New Age (Vanderbilt University Press 2007).