WASHINGTON - -The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington said Wednesday that it would be unable to continue the social service programs it runs for the District of Columbia if the city won't change a proposed same-sex marriage law, a threat that could affect tens of thousands of people the church helps with adoption, homelessness and health care.
Under the bill, headed for a D.C. Council vote next month, religious organizations would not be required to perform or make space available for same-sex weddings. But they would have to obey city laws prohibiting discrimination against gay men and lesbians.
Fearful that they could be forced, among other things, to extend employee benefits to same-sex married couples, church officials said they would have no choice but to abandon their contracts with the city.
"If the city requires this, we can't do it," Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said Wednesday. "The city is saying in order to provide social services, you need to be secular. For us, that's really a problem."
Several D.C. Council members said the Catholic Church is trying to erode the city's long-standing laws protecting gay men and lesbians from discrimination.
The clash escalates the dispute over the same-sex marriage proposal between the council and the archdiocese, which has generally stayed out of city politics.
Catholic Charities, the church's social services arm, is one of dozens of nonprofit organizations that partner with Washington. It serves 68,000 people in the city, including the one-third of Washington's homeless people who go to city-owned shelters managed by the church. City leaders said the church is not the dominant provider of any particular social service, but the church pointed out that it supplements funding for city programs with $10 million.
"All of those services will be adversely impacted if the exemption language remains so narrow," Jane G. Belford, chancellor of the Washington Archdiocese, wrote to the council this week.
The church's influence seems limited. In separate interviews Wednesday, council member Mary M. Cheh referred to the church as "somewhat childish." Another council member, David Catania said he would rather end the city's relationship with the church than give in to its demands.
"They don't represent, in my mind, an indispensable component of our social services infrastructure," said Catania, the sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill.
The standoff appears to be among the harshest between a government and a faith-based group over the rights of same-sex couples. Advocates for same-sex couples said they could not immediately think of other places where such a law had set off a break with a major faith-based provider of social services.
The council is expected to pass the same-sex marriage bill next month, but the measure continues to face strong opposition from a number of groups, which are pushing for a referendum on the issue.
The archdiocese's statement follows a vote Tuesday by the council's Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary to reject an amendment that would have allowed individuals, based on their religious beliefs, to decline to provide services for same-sex weddings.
"Lets say an individual caterer is a staunch Christian and someone wants him to do a cake with two grooms on top," said council member Yvette M. Alexander, the sponsor of the amendment. "Why can't they say, based on their religious beliefs, 'I can't do something like that'?"
After the vote, the archdiocese sent out a statement accusing the council of ignoring the right of religious freedom. Gibbs said Wednesday that without Alexander's amendment and other proposed changes, the measure has too narrow an exemption. She said religious groups that receive city funds would be required to give same-sex couples medical benefits, open adoptions to same-sex couples and rent a church hall to a support group for lesbian couples.
Peter Rosenstein of the Campaign for All D.C. Families accused the church of trying to "blackmail the city."
"The issue here is they are using public funds, and to allow people to discriminate with public money is unacceptable," Rosenstein said.