The price of passage of same-sex marriage legislation in the District of Columbia has just risen dramatically. Refusing to include robust religious liberty protections in the bill that has just been approved by a Council subcommittee, the City appears poised to impose requirements that will drastically cut social services for some of the city’s most hard-pressed residents. The impact will be severest on food pantries, health care providers, services for the homeless and adoption and foster care assistance.

The conflict focuses on the scope of the religious liberty exemption included in the bill the D.C. City Council could pass as early as December 1 to replace its traditional marriage law with a regime that allows same-sex unions. In testimony before the Council late last month, both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which disagree fundamentally on public policy that approves same-sex marriage, testified that the original draft religious liberty exemption in the bill was far too narrow. The draft bill not only put social services to the needy at risk, but it also would have required churches that operate facilities like reception halls to make them available to same-sex couples regardless of the churches’ religious teachings and practice.

The version of the bill the Council subcommittee approved this week relented on the issue of reception halls, allowing churches to decline to make them available for same-sex marriages and other unions to which they might object. However, the bill did not exempt churches from obligations it would impose that would, for example, require the churches to provide marriage benefits to same-sex couples who work for them. As a result, and because D.C. contracts for social services will require compliance with the city’s non-discrimination laws, the longstanding agreements with service providers like the Archdiocese will end. An analogous impasse occurred in Boston in 2006, where Catholic Charities was unable to obtain a state license because of its views on traditional marriage and was forced to shutter its adoption services for hard-to-place children.

Catholic social service agencies in the District of Columbia play a huge role in meeting the needs of the poor. D.C. officials have not challenged the church’s assertion that it may be the largest of the city’s private-sector providers, a longstanding partner without the problems that have beset many other city programs. The Archdiocese shelters about one third of the city’s homeless every night. Overall, it assists some 68,000 D.C. residents every year, putting up $10 million of its own money and operating, until now, without controversy. In throwing down the gauntlet to its most active and effective charity, same-sex marriage advocates on the D.C. Council are aiming an iron glove at everyone from the homeless to children who need homes of their own.