Catholic Charities changes benefits after gay marriage legalization

March 18, 2010

Catholic Charities in the District of Columbia has enacted two significant employment policy changes in response to the District’s recent legalization of same-sex marriage. New employees will no longer be able to receive health benefits for their spouses and will be required to pledge that they will not violate the tenets of the Catholic Church.

Although new employees will not be able to provide health benefits to their spouses, they will still be covered under the new policy and be able to provide benefits to their children. According to Catholic Charities spokesperson Eric Salmi, the less than 10 percent of Catholic Charities’ 850 employees in the District who currently take advantage of spousal health benefits will continue receiving those benefits.

In addition to the change in spousal benefits, Catholic Charities added language to its hiring letter requiring all new employees to promise “not to violate the principles or tenets of the Church,” though Salmi said that this policy is not a direct response to the same-sex marriage legislation.

Catholic Charities and the Archdiocese of Washington both testified before D.C. City Council prior to the same-sex marriage legislation’s passage, outlining their opposition and expressing their concern that the bill might limit their ability to continue to provide social services in the District.

“We had three goals,” Salmi said. “One was to stay true to Catholic teaching, the second one was to stay in compliance with D.C. law and thereby keep this excellent partnership with them, and the third was to continue to work in a community with the 68,000 people we served last year. We looked at a wide range of options and decided this was the best way forward for us.”

Gay rights organizations, like the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, however, are not satisfied with the policy change.

“This decision by the Archdiocese, and it really is the Archdiocese that’s really calling the shots here, it’s cold and heartless and arrogant and shows a continued willful denial of reality and it’s unnecessary,” GLAA Vice President for Political Affairs Rick Rosendall said.

According to Salmi, the policy change was necessary in order to continue to maintain the organization’s founding principles.

However, Rosendall said that Catholic Charities could have opted for a different approach in order to maintain their religious values while continuing to provide spousal health benefits. Rosendall highlighted benefit plans at Georgetown University and the Archdiocese of San Francisco, in which employees can designate any domestic partner as their recipient of health benefits.

Nancy Polikoff, Professor of Law at American University, agreed that Catholic Charities had other options besides eliminating all spousal health benefits.

Polikoff also argued that because federal law does not require same-sex partners to be covered, Catholic Charities could have changed their employee benefit plan in order to comply in that manner.

“They had the option of reorganizing their employee benefit plan in a way that would’ve been perfectly legal and allowed them to discriminate,” Polikoff said.

Catholic Charities’s new hiring clause also raises some legal concerns, because it requires all new employees to abide by the tenets of the Church.

Rosendall said that the clause might be subject to discrimination laws because Catholic Charities often operates outside a core religious function when the organization uses public funds to provide social services.

Salmi said Catholic Charities does not believe this is an issue.

“We don’t discriminate,” Salmi said. “We are an equal opportunity employer. When we’re considering candidates for a position, all we look is their qualifications to carry out the work.”

Polikoff, however, believes that there might be a legal case to be made against the new policy.

“I’m sure that if they actually were to refuse to hire somebody who crossed out that paragraph, I’m sure that will get tested in the courts about whether that’s something they can legally do,” Polikoff said.

Arthur Spitzer, legal director of ACLU in D.C., said that he was unsure whether his organization would support such a challenge.

“The Supreme Court has never said that the fact somebody receives public funds means that they have to pledge or act in a non-discriminatory way. And that’s been an ongoing debate for the last five to six years,” Spitzer said. “It’s a philosophical and legal argument that doesn’t have a clear answer at this point … Somebody might well bring a case, but I can’t say whether the ACLU would support that or not. If somebody wanted us to bring such a case, we would certainly think about it.”

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What’s next, are they going to require video cameras in employees’ bedrooms to ensure they are not using protection? That’s a “tenet” of Catholocism too, no?

I’m not a Catholic, but I wish the church would focus on real problems, like sexual abuse within the church.

Rick Rosendall

To be clear, the solution that Georgetown and the S.F. Archdiocese embraced doesn’t deal with a domestic partner per se. It allows the employee to designate any individual as their beneficiary. That way there is no reference to a particular relationship of which the Church might disapprove. If such solution is acceptable to one achdiocese, why not another? The fact is that the Archiocese of Washington just wanted to bully the city, and failing that provoke Congress to step in, and it hasn’t worked.

As to Art Spitzer’s skepticism, this is something he and I have discussed. He seems to me more solicitous of religious groups’ right to discriminate than I am. Merely invoking the First Amendment doesn’t answer the detailed questions about particular circumstances, so one must look through the case law and get into the weeds on fairly abstruse points of constitutional jurisprudence. Different people draw the line in different places. I believe there have even been disagreements between the local chapter of ACLU and the national ACLU. I personally am not particularly litigious, and am not inclined to sue the Archdiocese or Catholic Charities for possible past violations of the D.C. Human Rights Act (which goes considerably further than federal law) as long as their discrimination is not continuing to be subsidized by D.C. tax dollars.