Foster Kids and Religious Liberty in DC

With the decision by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to deny a stay requested by proponents of traditional marriage, the District of Columbia’s same-sex marriage law takes effect today.  Anticipating that event, the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington took another step to comply with the law’s terms this past Monday. Rather than begin to offer spousal health insurance benefits to the partners of any homosexual employees of Catholic Charities, the Diocese has chosen to end such benefits for all new employees, effective today.  The benefits will also cease to be available to the spouse of any current employee who had not already elected the coverage.

One District official who had previously clashed with the Diocese over its decision to seek a robust religious exemption from the same-sex marriage law seems unfazed by the Catholic Church’s new decision. D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who voted for same-sex marriage, said “Catholic Charities is a private, nonprofit corporation. They can choose to provide benefits to families and spouses or not.”

This outcome protects the right of the Archdiocese of Washington to preserve a policy it views as central to its character and mission. Marriage in the Catholic view represents “the covenant of conjugal love freely and consciously chosen, whereby man and woman accept the intimate community of life and love willed by God Himself.” In addition to maintaining its freedom to determine the character of its charitable work, the Diocese’s decision allows a set of invaluable social services to continue. Catholic-run shelters in the nation’s capital, for example, serve about one-third of the city’s homeless.

The litigation over the same-sex marriage bill will continue irrespective of last night’s ruling from the Supreme Court, as advocates of traditional marriage strive to get the issue on the ballot for a public vote. In the interim, another toll of the new law is clearer. Husbands and wives of future employees of Catholic Charities will sacrifice health insurance coverage, a benefit that recognized the importance of the family unit. The “clash of orthodoxies” is not a victimless conflict.

What’s more, the idea that major changes in civil society can be implemented without profound clashes of principle is clearly false. Marriage is not an insular institution, even if, as here, it can be insulated to a degree from public policy. The Archdiocese of Washington has asked the Church’s adherents to bear the brunt of the new policy, but the coming clash was visible to city officials who chose conflict over compromise.