Sarah Who?

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I’m joining Joe as a conscientious objector to Palinmania. (Did anyone else start twitching less than a minute into the Barbara Walters interview?) Let’s focus instead on something a little less controversial like, oh, say, the Catholic church and gay rights.

You might have read last week that the Archdiocese of Washington is threatening to pull out of its D.C. social service contracts if the city council passes a same-sex marriage law that would also prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians. And if you did, you read wrong.

Of course, coming on the heels of the involvement of the bishops conference in getting the House to vote on restricting abortion coverage in health reform, it was easy for many people to jump to the conclusion that the church was rolling merrily along, sweeping the poor aside for yet another fight over social issues. A Democratic congresswoman had already called on the IRS to consider revoking the church’s tax-exempt status. A D.C. councilwoman called the church “childish.”

So what’s really going on? The archdiocese may indeed stop providing social services through contracts with the city, but only because it expects that the city would cancel those contracts should the proposed law pass. That’s because organizations that contract with the city would be required to provide spousal benefits to employees with same-sex partners, something the Catholic church does not do.

Now, it’s possible to disagree with the church’s policy on partner benefits and it’s possible to argue that in this case the church knows that sticking with that policy will interfere with its ability to help the poor. But that’s different from the Archdiocese threatening to take its food kitchens and go home because the rules of the game have changed.

David Gibson over at Politics Daily has an interesting analysis of the situation that suggests the city council knew it was challenging the church by refusing to include religious exemptions as some other cities–including, just last week, Salt Lake City–have. 

Just look at the news earlier this week from Salt Lake City, a bastion of conservative Mormonism, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints backed — as in came out in public support of — a pair of ordinances that bar landlords and employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation. Mormon support cleared the way for unanimous passage of the measures, making Salt Lake City the first Utah city to provide such protections for gays and lesbians, something they do not enjoy even under state law. 

The key to securing Mormon support was that the measures offered what a church official called “common-sense rights that should be available to everyone, while safeguarding the crucial rights of religious organizations — for example, in their hiring of people whose lives are in harmony with their tenets, or when providing housing for their university students and others that preserve religious requirements.” The D.C. City Council bill on same-sex marriage does not include such exemptions…

Father Thomas Reese, as solidly liberal a Catholic as they come, made a similar argument in an online column at the Washington Post:

It should be clear from this review of the facts that the church is not threatening to withdraw its money from the poor. It is simply pointing out that it cannot observe these new requirements and therefore the city will cancel its contracts. It is in fact the city council that is closing down these programs, not the archdiocese.

City council members can still avert the canceling of Catholic contracts by working exemptions into the proposal they will consider next month. Whether they want to is another question.