Archdiocese Opposes Bill to Redefine Marriage; Bill Also Infringes upon Religious Liberty

October 26, 2009

At a hearing before the District of Columbia City Council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary on October 26, representatives of the Archdiocese of Washington spoke in support of marriage and religious freedom, and in opposition to legislation that would redefine marriage and greatly infringe upon religious liberty.

In written testimony that was submitted, the archdiocese noted that because of its religious beliefs and understanding of the purpose of marriage, “…the Archdiocese opposes this legislation and any effort to redefine marriage as other than that between a man and a woman. Furthermore, the Archdiocese has deep concerns that this bill would restrict the free exercise of religious beliefs if it is passed as drafted.”

The legislation, besides overturning the definition of marriage, has no exemptions for churches, religious organizations such as the Knights of Columbus or religiously-owned nonprofits such as Catholic Charities, if those organizations provide services to the general public or rent space to individuals or groups outside of their faith.

“Every year, Catholic Charities provides shelter, food, counseling, medical and legal assistance, and more to 68,000 people in the District of Columbia regardless of their faith,” said Ed Orzechowski, president/CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. “If the Council passes this bill as written, these programs are at risk along with nearly 100 different parish social ministry programs, all of the other ministries operated by the Catholic Church and even meeting space for groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Scouts and neighborhood organizations who partner with churches.”

A legal analysis of the bill by the Williams & Connolly law firm states, “The expected effect…, if enacted without expanded protection for religious conscience, would be to put the Archdiocese (and its employees) in a position that is simply untenable under the First Amendment: the District will effectively force the Archdiocese either to violate the law or to abandon forms of religious practice – care for the poor, hungry and homeless – that are fundamental to the practice of Catholic social teaching.” The analysis goes on to note the legislation also has no exemption for individuals who may have religious objections to providing services for same-sex couples.

Six prominent legal scholars, including Professor of Law Robin Fretwell Wilson of Washington & Lee University, independently have submitted a letter to Council Chairman Vincent Gray detailing serious problems with the legislation from a religious freedom perspective. They note that religious organizations are at risk of lawsuits if, for example, they decline to offer their facilities to same sex couples or to limit married student housing to couples of the opposite sex.

Other risks for religious organizations and individuals who cannot recognize same sex marriages for religious reasons but which serve the community include being denied access to government contracts or access to government facilities (such as leases), the revocation of licenses for doctors and social workers, the denial of child care licenses, lawsuits for not providing same-sex benefits to employees and the revocation of accreditation of religious colleges.

This would have serious implications in the District of Columbia, where Catholic Charities provides foster care and adoption services for nearly 100 children every year as well as shelter every night for nearly one in three of the city’s homeless men, women and children under contracts with the city, which cannot provide these services itself as efficiently and cost effectively.

Copies of the written testimony and other materials are online at

The Archdiocese of Washington includes over 580,000 Catholics living in the District of Columbia and five Maryland counties: Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s. In the District of Columbia, there are 40 parishes, 21 Catholic schools and 25 corporations established to serve the community.

Susan Gibbs
Director of Communications
[email protected]