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Councilman David Catania (AP/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin)

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Marriage | Catholics threaten social services cuts if religious protections aren't added to D.C. gay marriage bill

WASHINGTON-Catholic Charities, one of the largest private providers of social services in Washington, D.C., has said it may cut contracts with the city because of the lack of religious protections in the District Council's soon-to-be-passed same-sex marriage bill. It's a rare showdown between a faith-based organization and a local government over gay marriage.

The bill extends religious freedom protections to churches, allowing them to refuse to rent their facilities to a gay couple for a wedding. Religious organizations are also exempted from "the promotion of same-sex marriage." The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington argued that those protections aren't sufficient for religious organizations, adding that organizations may, for example, be required to provide employee benefits to same-sex couples. These groups could also face lawsuits for discrimination against gay couples who wish to adopt.

The lack of protection, the archdiocese said in a statement, "leaves religious organizations and individuals at risk for adhering to the teachings of their faith." The council isn't likely to make changes, though, because as one council member put it, the purpose of the law is to "establish under the law equality for same-sex couples." One council member, Yvette Alexander, did offer an amendment to broaden religious freedom protections, but that was defeated.

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Catholic Charities serves approximately 68,000 people in the city, providing services for the homeless, adoptions, refugees, and the poor. They provide language classes, healthcare, drug treatment, and legal aid, using $10 million from their own funds. The city provided the group $8.2 million in contracts from 2006 to 2008, and one-third of the city's homeless use shelters run by the church.

But district councilman David Catania, who is gay and sponsored the same-sex marriage bill, wasn't concerned, telling The Washington Post, "They don't represent, in my mind, an indispensable component of our social services infrastructure."

The absence of Catholic Charities, however, would be felt particularly in a city that has cut millions from its budget this year in social services-$20 million from its homeless services alone. The city's agencies aren't a shining alternative. Several of them are under scrutiny for poor management. The Child and Family Services Agency, for example, has been under court supervision for 18 years, and two high-profile murder cases of children dying from abuse and neglect from their adoptive parents in 2008 and 2009 ramped up criticism of the agency.

The city's AIDS administration, too, is under the threat that the Department of Housing and Urban Development may cut $12.2 million in funding because of revelations that money at the AIDS agency has been grossly mismanaged.

The evangelical organizations that provide social services in the city are smaller and more diffuse than Catholic Charities, and have not been as vocal in the debate over the religious protections in the same-sex marriage bill, which is expected to come up for a final vote in December.

Another arm of Catholic Charities dealt with similar anti-discrimination laws in Massachusetts in 2006, where same-sex marriage is legal. At the time, the organization was providing adoptions to gay couples, which the Vatican has condemned, but local Catholic officials said they had to provide those adoptions to comply with anti-discrimination laws. After the news broke about the adoptions, Catholic Charities cut its adoption services in Boston in 2006. The president of the organization at the time, Bryan Hehir, said the debate over gay adoptions could become distracting to the whole scope of the organization's work, so they eventually shut the service down, with Catholic leadership there deciding not to fight uphill in the legislature to get stronger religious exemption clauses.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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