Bishops' Bluff: D.C. Officials Should Reject Church Threat Over Tax Funding

Catholic Charities seems to want tax funds with no strings attached.

When I picked up my Washington Post at the breakfast table this morning, the first thing I saw was a blaring headline reading, "Catholic Church gives D.C. ultimatum." All I could think was, "This ought to be good."

And indeed it was. Church officials are angry over pending legislation in Washington, D.C., that will curb discrimination against gays and lesbians by recognizing same-sex marriages. They are threatening to stop taking public money to provide social services unless the D.C. council changes the bill.

Let me get this straight: The church is saying, "Unless you bow to our demands, we'll stop taking your money"?

Church leaders really need to come up with some better threats.

The fuss centers on language in the bill that exempts religious groups from some of its provisions. No one is seriously arguing that a church should be required to perform same-sex marriages if the church opposes them. That's not even on the table.

But officials with the Catholic Church sought a much broader exemption, one that would have allowed "faith-based" agencies to ignore much of the bill. The result would have been toothless legislation, more symbol than substance.

What's especially frustrating is that Americans United and its allies worked in good faith to make this bill the best it could be.

Our organizations agreed that the early versions of the bill contained an exemption for religious groups that was admittedly a little narrow. We proposed new language that remedied the problem, and the Council's version largely reflects that appropriate standard.

As it now stands, the religious exemption protects the integrity of religious groups in matters of pure theology but recognizes that wide-ranging practices of discrimination step on the rights of others. In AU's view, that problem is only compounded when public funds enter the picture. No one should be turned away from a publicly funded job or denied services because they are the "wrong" religion or their personal lives fail to conform to the teachings of a particular denomination.

Catholic Charities seems to want tax funds with no strings attached. The Post reported that from 2006 through 2008, Catholic Charities received about $8.2 million in city contracts to provide various services. The city is now asking them to abide by some reasonable anti-discrimination laws, laws that in my view they should have been following all along.

David Catania, a member of the D.C. who has pushed the same-sex marriage law, got it exactly right when he said, "If they find living under our laws so oppressive that they can no longer take city resources, the city will have to find an alternative partner to step in to fill the shoes."

I doubt it will come to that. Catholic Charities relies heavily on public money. In most parts of the country, the lion's share of its budget comes from the public purse. In D.C. for example, Catholic Charities had an overall budget of $23 million for the fiscal year that ended in June of 2008. Of that total, $16 million came from the government.

It's hard to believe the church is going to step away from that pot of money because of a dispute over non-discrimination laws.

Catholic Charities is bluffing. The D.C. Council should call that bluff.