Metro Weekly

Opinion: Should a Publicly-Funded Charity Serve the Public?

Catholic Charities attempts to block marriage equality while sitting on the public dole

If you receive public funds, should you have to serve the public? That is the question the Catholic Church is now asking itself. It seeks to retain millions of dollars in taxpayer funds while refusing to spend the money on those in need, unless the D.C. City Council agrees to discriminate against its gay and lesbian citizens. The church has weighed its priorities: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and mistreating the gays and decided its fourth priority is its most important. After all, what would Jesus do?

This may seem a bit harsh. The church claims its stance has nothing to do with bigotry and everything to do with protecting the Catholic sacrament of marriage. The church says it simply does not wish to provide benefits to those secularly married couples they consider unlawfully married in the eyes of God. But a simple example proves beyond any doubt that this position has no more authenticity than the Shroud of Turin. Consider divorce.

There are few doctrines in Catholicism more important than its strict opposition to divorce. This is no small matter. Those who remember history may just recollect that a seemingly minor dispute between the Pope and King Henry VIII over divorce led to the creation of the Protestant Church in England and countless religious wars to follow.

Catholic marriages may only be religiously dissolved by ”annulment,” i.e. as if the marriage never occurred. Imagine, if you will, the case of Mrs. Smith, a hypothetical social worker at Catholic Charities. Mr. and Mrs. Smith were once married in the Catholic Church. Things go sour, and the couple seeks a legal divorce and religious annulment. The secular divorce is granted, but the religious annulment is not. Mrs. Smith then remarries a Jewish man, Mr. Cohen (and changes her name to Mrs. Cohen). The state accepts this marriage even though, in the eyes of the church, Mrs. Cohen is still married to Mr. Smith and not Mr. Cohen.

Mrs. Cohen’s employer Catholic Charities was set up as a non-profit corporation separate from the Catholic Church precisely so that it, unlike the church, could receive taxpayer funds. Under the law, a taxpayer-funded charity may not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, or race. The Catholic Church thus may refuse to hire female priests, but Catholic Charities cannot refuse to hire female social workers, unless it forfeits its substantial taxpayer funding.

This almost-50-year-old law is a good one. The state should not make religious distinctions or establish a particular theology. All are equal in the eyes of the law. So if a charity takes state funds, it must treat everyone equally with those funds. A charity cannot very well ask gay taxpayers to finance their own discrimination, any more than it can ask Protestant taxpayers to fund a job for which only Catholics may be hired.

Let’s return now to Mrs. Cohen. Catholic Charities provides Mrs. Cohen spousal benefits. Guess who gets them. I’ll give you a hint. It’s not Mr. Smith, Mrs. Cohen’s husband under Catholic law. It’s Mr. Cohen, her husband by secular law. Does this not offend the Catholic sacrament of marriage? Under Catholic law, Mrs. Cohen is married bigamously, and to a Jew, no less. Yet Catholic Charities has been providing spousal benefits to the secular spouses of its employees for almost half a century, whether they be Protestant, Muslim, Hindu or atheist. Is Muslim doctrine, atheism and Catholic religious bigamy any less offensive to Catholic theology than a loving gay couple?

There are many solutions for Catholic Charities if it wants to refuse to recognize the secular marriages of gay couples. It can pay its employees without regard to their marital status, religion or sexual orientation. All it has to do is allow each of its employees, married or single, to designate one individual who will receive benefits. Whether that be spouse, child, parent, sibling, or friend is not the Church’s concern: equal pay for equal work. Or Catholic Charities can continue to do as it has done in the past: provide spousal benefits to everyone it hires who is married according to secular law. Doing so does not demonstrate Catholic ”approval” of any particular secular marriage, any more than providing spousal benefits in the past demonstrated Catholic ”approval” of Islam or non-Catholic divorces.

Or Catholic Charities can get off the public dole. What it cannot do is take public funds and then refuse to serve the public. If a church cares more about discrimination than it does about sheltering the homeless or feeding the hungry, then perhaps public funds are best spent on the public, rather than on that church.

Mark Levine, counsel for the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, worked in Congress to defeat President Bush’s “Faith-Based Initiative.” He hosts ”The Inside Scoop” television show and ”Dialogue” radio show. The views expressed are his own.