Getting right with God and government

It was only four years ago that Catholic Charities of Boston announced that it was getting out of the adoption business in order to comply with new state laws dealing with sexual orientation discrimination and same-sex marriage. Last month the District of Columbia, where I live, voted to legalize same-sex marriage.

Let me be clear: Our notorious City Council decided to change the law on this matter and efforts to allow the actual residents of the city to vote were successfully fought. That means DC Catholic Charities had to choose between obeying church teaching on the sanctity of life and continuing to have contracts with the city government to assist with adoptions and foster care.

And that’s not the only unintended consequence of the new ruling. Here’s the Washington Post‘s William Wan reporting on the latest:

Starting Tuesday, Catholic Charities will not offer benefits to spouses of new employees or to spouses of current employees who are not already enrolled in the plan. A letter describing the change in health benefits was e-mailed to employees Monday, two days before same-sex marriage will become legal in the District.

“We looked at all the options and implications,” said the charity’s president, Edward J. Orzechowski. “This allows us to continue providing services, comply with the city’s new requirements and remain faithful to the church’s teaching.”

It’s been years since the warnings and concerns about how introducing same-sex marriage would affect religious freedom ceased being theoretical. This Post story is good. It’s a very straightforward account that focuses almost exclusively on the news and doesn’t include much analysis from folks on various sides of the religious and political issues. But before you do analysis, you need the news and this is a good piece packed with information.

But I don’t think we’ve seen anything close to the amount or type of coverage that this issue warrants. When I think of mainstream coverage of the tension between gay rights and religious freedom, I can think of one piece that ran in NPR two years ago. Consider this quote from the article I linked to earlier in the week by traditional marriage advocate Maggie Gallagher:

I PUT THE QUESTION to Anthony Picarello, president and general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket Fund is widely recognized as one of the best religious liberty law firms and the only one that defends the religious liberty of all faith groups, “from Anglicans to Zoroastrians,” as its founder Kevin J. Hasson likes to say (referring to actual clients the Becket Fund has defended).

Just how serious are the coming conflicts over religious liberty stemming from gay marriage?

“The impact will be severe and pervasive,” Picarello says flatly. “This is going to affect every aspect of church-state relations.” Recent years, he predicts, will be looked back on as a time of relative peace between church and state, one where people had the luxury of litigating cases about things like the Ten Commandments in courthouses. In times of relative peace, says Picarello, people don’t even notice that “the church is surrounded on all sides by the state; that church and state butt up against each other. The boundaries are usually peaceful, so it’s easy sometimes to forget they are there. But because marriage affects just about every area of the law, gay marriage is going to create a point of conflict at every point around the perimeter.”

So we’ll have points of conflict everywhere, great uncertainty about how to resolve these issues, and have the media really treated the issue with the seriousness that it deserves?

Take this USA Today blog treatment of the most recent news. Here’s how a recent post looking at how Catholic organizations follow Catholic teaching begins:

If the sign says “Catholic,” then, by golly, it had better be by-the-book Catholic. That’s what U.S. bishops and agency heads are saying as they make moves across the country to ensure the Church’s directives, particularly on marriage and sexuality are followed to the letter by everyone who flies the brand flag.

As opposed to what, by golly? I’m not Catholic but I would hope that any church leadership worth their salt would encourage everyone in the church to follow both the letter and the spirit of God’s law. Some of us even think that what the church has to say is just as or possibly even more important as what my city council thinks at a given moment. Maybe some people think that “everyone who flies the Catholic brand flag” should just bend their practices to whatever winds blow their way, but that’s not really the way the traditional church has operated over the years.

And while some people think that the most important civil rights issue in the world right now involves allowing two people of the same sex to marry each other, others actually think that this is a pernicious idea on several fronts (none of which ever seem to be explored by the media). And no matter what people think about the issue of changing marriage law, few scholars will disagree that this will have affect religious freedom. There is major tension. It’s happening wherever legislators and judges impose same-sex marriage. Let’s start seeing some more substantive mainstream coverage.

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  • Lymis

    Your first sentence contains a factual error.

    The anti-discrimination laws that you reference in Massachusetts were not new four years ago – they had been in place for years, and Catholic Charities had placed a number of children with gay families prior to the court decision mandating marriage equality.

    You are correct that the Church choose to stop their adoption services rather than continue to comply with those laws, but it was not a new thing. This is framed as something they were never doing and were about to be forced into, which is untrue. They changed their policy of placing children with gay families, and shut down the services rather than continue to do so.

    Your article also overlooks the fact that the Church does not exclude remarried divorced people from it’s services, who are just as much in violation of Church law as gay couples.

    If the Church is going to recognize one form of doctrinally invalid civil marriage for the purposes of employee benefits, it certainly needs more of a justification than “this violates our doctrine” to refuse to recognize others.

  • Mollie


    Well, the same-sex marriage law was brand spanking new while the anti-discrimination law was a few years old and yes, you’re right that the charities had failed to comply with church law at first by placing the children with gays and then stopped doing adoptions altogether to comply with Mass law.

    Anyway, the point is that it was four years ago that we first got a taste of this story and yet media coverage hasn’t done its job.

  • Peter

    Stories in the mainstream press about religious liberty and gay rights

    There was also extensive coverage of the religious liberty compromise in Vermont and New Hampshire, the days of public hearings in DC where opponents of same-sex marriage relied largely on religious liberty arguments, and numerous op-ed pieces by conservatives arguing the exact point you are making.

    So is it really true that “none of which ever seem to be explored by the media” is accurate?

  • Dave

    Let’s take Anthony Picarello’s allegory as factual, that there is a close perimeter between church and state, and gay marriage is going to create tension all along that perimeter.

    Do you, Mollie, expect every article about a particular clash somewhere on that perimeter, to contain a comprehensive run-down of the whole perimeter? I think this would be unreasonable in terms of available column inches. It may be appropriate to tax the MSM for never covering the whole perimeter, apart from that NPR show a couple of years ago. But it’s not a valid criticism to slam each article that comes out for not providing that global coverage.

  • Allen

    Mollie wrote:
    “That means DC Catholic Charities had to choose between obeying church teaching on the sanctity of life and continuing to have contracts with the city government to assist with adoptions and foster care.”

    I’ll admit I’m not well versed in Catholic doctrine but is gay marriage really a “sanctity of life” issue? Honestly not trying to argue; I really didn’t know that, if true.

  • Ben

    When I think of mainstream coverage of the tension between gay rights and religious freedom, I can think of one piece that ran in NPR two years ago.

    I don’t know whether you consider the CSM mainstream but you’ve highlighted some of their stories recently so I’m guessing that you do:

  • michael


    In a word, ‘yes’. But the connection is not straightforward or obvious and often leaves people scratching their heads. It has to do with the nature of the person as a body-soul unity and therefore with the body in its ‘personal’ meaning (and thus the nature of our ‘materiality’) and what follows when this understanding of the person is fragmented. Obviously there is a whole lot more to say, but that would put you on the right trail to finding the thread which connects same-sex marriage and ‘sanctity of life’ issues in Catholic thought. As it happens, it also appears to be part of the thread connecting this issue with ecology in the thought of the current Pope.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I recently saw in a Catholic publication that chaplains in the military are becoming very concerned about any changes in the rules concerning gays there. As far as I have seen the MSM has not touched this issue. Nor have I seen any real in-depth analysis on how –contrary to liberal politicians promises–the changes they have been promoting are slowly disembowling the First Amendment on behalf of a movement and ideology that is nowhere mentioned in the U.S. Constitution.

  • Martha

    “everyone who flies the brand flag”

    That made me want to burst into tears :-(

  • Ray Ingles

    Well, the Boy Scouts are free to bar atheists and gays from joining, but they close off some options because of that. Similarly, the Catholic church is free to not recognize certain marriages as valid, but that also closes off some legal options. At the extreme far end of this, the white-supremacist “Creativity Movement” is also free to discriminate based on their religious understanding, but that has legal consequences, too.

    I’m thinking the diplomatic solution would be for the state to get out of the marriage business entirely, and just do civil unions for all. If people want them solemnized, they can go to whatever church agrees with them on the requirements for a marriage.

  • Michael Pettinger

    I’m with Martha. I know it’s only a blog comment, but describing the Catholic Church as a “brand” is the kind of glib reductionism that gives journalism a bad name.

    That said, I’m just as surprised by the tone of Mollie’s post. Was it the act of approving same-sex marriage that makes the DC city council “notorious,” or was it their refusal to put it to a popular vote? It is often pointed out that the protection of minority rights cannot be entrusted to majority votes (does anyone think mixed-race marriages or desegregation would have survived a popular vote?) Or is the council notorious for reasons that have nothing to do with this decision? At the very least, the adjective “notorious” begs for clarification, particularly in a blog that is supposed to address issues of fairness and bias in journalism.

    I’m actually very sympathetic with the concerns some people have about the legalization of same-sex marriage, and stories about the difficulties these organizations encounter are important.

    But, as I have said before, the MSM also routinely overlooks another group in these debates — gay Christians (in this case, specifically Catholics). Where are the stories about Catholic parishes (like the one of which I am a member) not-so-quietly accepting same-sex couples, and even baptism their infant children? (I’ve witnessed at least three such baptisms in two different parishes in two different states.) What about Catholic social service providers — I can name one in Manhattan run by an order of nuns — that embrace LGBT people? What about the dilemma many gay and lesbian Catholics feel about giving money to the diocese that then might use those funds to support efforts to block their right to marry? (My own parish, with a large gay-lesbian membership, did not reach their diocesan appeal goal last year, largely, I suspect, because of this ambivalence.)

    I have said it before in the venue and I will say it again. Framing the issue as the Catholic Church vs. the rights of LGBT people misses an important dimension of the story. Many very open LGBT are the Catholic Church…

  • Michael Pettinger

    Your patience with my typos is greatly appreciated.

  • Mollie


    Excellent posts on coverage. I sort of wish we could see the flip side as well — traditional Christians’ relationships with gay colleagues, friends, family members who don’t agree on the issues. It seems like there could be so many fascinating stories even if the legal ones take precedence.

    Anyway, pardon my snark on our city council. One of our members is Marion Barry. Another had to give up his oversight of the DC Taxicab Commission late last year after his chief of staff was one of 27 people arrested in some kind of bribery scandal.

    Sometimes I think that every member has aspects of Clay Davis (The Wire) in them.

    You might counter that this is no different than any other city council. Perhaps you’d be right.

  • Mollie

    Ack. Make that “excellent POINTS” on coverage.

  • dalea

    Left out is any analysis of the beneftis of Gay marriage to churches. When you do cost/benefit analysis, you must look at both. And there are churches that benefit. Plus, as Lymis says:

    Your article also overlooks the fact that the Church does not exclude remarried divorced people from its services, who are just as much in violation of Church law as gay couples.

    This simple fact is ignored by the press. It is only with the advent of Gay marriage that employees with undoctinal marriages become an issue. The whole issue needs more thorough coverage.

    Michael Pettinger makes excellent points. At the parish level both clergy and laity are much more accepting of Gay people than the hierarchy. I would like to see more coverage of this split between the laity and the hierarchy, a topic that never seems to get much coverage.

  • Peter

    Ironic that it was Marion Barry who took up the mantle of traditional marriage advocates and the Church against his less corrupt colleagues who backed gay marriage.

    The council is elected by the people and marriage was approved after several rounds of public hearings. Interesting that the new rhetoric is that even participatory democracy is now an inhibition by force against the people. Madison must be rolling over in his grave.

  • Peter

    Representative, not participatory.

  • Mollie


    I don’t know what the phrase “inhibition of force against the people” means. Also not sure what it has to do with media coverage.

  • Mollie

    Thanks to Ben and Peter for links to other articles on the collision between gay rights and religious freedom (although one is from a church paper, not MSM).

    Still, I think that this issue might POSSIBLY require more thoughtful coverage than that which we’ve seen devoted to, say, Pat Robertson’s Vodou comments or even significant issues such as what’s happening in mainline church bodies.

    And a few (admittedly good) stories here and there spread out over the last few years just does not begin to touch the surface of this complex topic.

  • Peter

    Imposition, not inhibition. I was analyzing your critique that representative democracy is no longer satisfactory when it comes to civil rights issues.

  • Mollie


    I must have missed the part where I said “representative democracy is no longer satisfactory when it comes to civil rights issues.”

    I’m pretty darn certain I never said that since, well, that in no way describes my views or language.

    Unless I’m mistaken?

  • Jerry

    You might counter that this is no different

    But I live in California which is leading the way down the financial tubes due to gridlock that makes federal gridlock look like child’s play.

    This story is, however, nothing new. In the 60′s churches often led the way in civil disobedience to entrenched racism in the south etc. Earlier we had some churches in the civil war era disobeying slavery laws and we have the example of Mormonism and plural marriage as well.

    So it’s well to have the historical perspective that the media typically ignores.

  • Chip Smith

    Mollie said:

    I must have missed the part where I said “representative democracy is no longer satisfactory when it comes to civil rights issues.”

    It’s when you wrote “legislators and judges impose same-sex marriage” that you are expressing the idea that representative democracy is no longer satisfactory. The issue is the word “impose.”

  • Mollie

    First definition of “impose” in the dictionary:

    to lay on or set as something to be borne, endured, obeyed, fulfilled, paid, etc.: to impose taxes.

    It’s simply what the word means. It’s what legislators *do*.

    Legislators impose taxes, laws, etc. That is, they legislate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    According to an article on a British site (The Telegraph) the Brits will soon be working on the next step attacking Christianity–coercing churches and clergy to take part in gay “marriages.” That will come through lawsuits based on the “rights” legislation passed or soon to be passed there. Maybe someday the American media will give ample coverage to how in Europe and Canada just about every change in law benefitting gays has eventually been used as an attack weapon against the churches’ right to freedom of religion.

  • Chip Smith

    There is a negative connotation to word “impose” that is different from a word like “legislate.” Anti-SSM activists use the word “impose” to convey that there is something illegitimate about judges doing their job and representatives doing their job. Would you really say that a judge “imposed” something if you approved of the ruling?

    Besides, earlier in the article you specifically mentioned how the “notorious” City Council did not use direct democracy to decide this issue. In that context, Peter’s critique makes perfect sense.

  • Mollie

    Well, I am pretty sure the negative connotation is actually with “impose upon” and not “impose.”

    I will totally cop to being generally skeptical of government involvement with most things (including marriage, believe it or not) but “legislate” wouldn’t work in the sentence because then THAT has a negative connotation with the use of the word “judges.” And I specifically said “judges and legislators.” Which brings up the point that the phrase “judges and legislators legislate” is not a good phrase for more than one reason, then.

    Finally, it’s simply a fact that efforts to permit residents of the city to vote were successfully fought. Pretending that this didn’t happen doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

    The issue is important because no state in America has had its voters legalize same-sex marriage when the question was put to them. And something like 30 or more states have asked the question or asked them to explicitly ban it.

    So every success that the same-sex marriage advocates have had has come from judges and legislators (as with the DC vote). Every success that traditional marriage advocates have had has come from ballot initiatives and the like (including, most recently, Maine).

    That doesn’t make one or the other vehicle for changing the law better (at least not in my opinion) — it’s just the way it is.

  • Lymis

    Deacon Bresnahan: “According to an article on a British site (The Telegraph) the Brits will soon be working on the next step attacking Christianity—coercing churches and clergy to take part in gay “marriages.””

    That’s inaccurate and a bit inflammatory. The current law on civil partnerships in the UK specifically includes language that forbids any of the ceremonies to take place in any church or place of worship – even the ones who are willing, or actively seeking, to perform them. The are specifically only valid when performed in a secular setting.

    The change to the law is not specifically intended, as you state, to try to coerce unwilling churches to participate in ceremonies they disapprove of, but to free churches who are willing to do so to be allowed to.

    The same situation can’t arise in the US, because of specific First Amendment protections. People might file lawsuits, but just as a Catholic Church can’t be forced to marry a Jewish couple, or to marry divorced Catholics, churches can’t be forced to marry people whose unions they disapprove of. It’s a straw man argument – the precedents are very clear in the law already, so it is not a new situation.

    You are welcome to express concern that the law provides adequate protections to prevent the situation you are concerned about, but you’re mischaracterizing the situation completely.

  • Suzanne

    Thanks for posting again the link to the article by Maggie Gallagher. While she clearly has an opinion, she’s unhysterical, pretty fair-handed and willing to speak respectfully about the views of people with whom she disagrees. …

    [edit by tmatt]

  • Mollie


    Please substantiate your complaint. At this point, it’s way way way too vague for me to learn from and use to improve!

  • Suzanne

    Certainly. Always happy to help.

    –There’s the “notorious” comment, which you explained by citing past scandals that have nothing to do with this issue. Would a journalist writing about the Boston Archidiocese/Massachusetts gay adoptions debate be justified in using the “the notorious Archdiocese of Boston,” based on past sex abuse scandals?

    –”And while some people think that the most important civil rights issue in the world right now involves allowing two people of the same sex to marry each other” — do you honestly believe that your opponents believe this? Certainly, the spirited discussion about the proposed anti-gay law in Nigeria would demonstrate that there are currently far worse civil rights concerns even within the world of gay rights. It’s pretty petty to assume that just because people disagree with you about gay marriage that they wouldn’t admit that as well.

    Gratuitous snideness does not lend your insights credibility. In fact, it does the opposite.

    –And only a day later, you’re proposing that journalists gin up speculative scare-mongering about the possible “unintended consequences” (Earthquakes! Volcanoes! Dogs and cats living together!)of these laws. I suggest a local TV station take it on during sweeps month — right between hyping shark attacks and dangerous toys.

  • michael


    With respect to your last point, I would remind you of your second to last point, and I would ask: by eschewing ‘speculative scare mongering’ are you suggesting that there are no unintended consequences to the normalization/legalization of gay marriage? And if so, is this because there are no consequences at all that extend beyond the couples in question or is it because these consequences are intended?

  • Suzanne

    There may be unintended consequences, but because they’re unintended, we don’t know what they will be. Who should we ask? Those who oppose gay marriage, who are likely to hype or invent them as an argument against it? Those who support gay marriage, who are likely to assume that there won’t be any?

    It’s a good thing to look at what consequences have actually occurred in the past when these things have been passed, but asking people to speculate on “what’s the worst thing you think could happen?” doesn’t seem like a smart exercise for a journalist.

  • Mollie


    Okay, so you say I was hysterical and unwilling to speak fairly with my opponents (although I’m not sure who my opponents are since I’m a libertarian who believes marriage should be privatized — are my opponents everyone who believes the government should regulate marriage or some other group?).

    And to substantiate this you say that I should not have referred to the DC CC as the notorious city council. Although of all the things I’ve written in the last week, I certainly thought THAT adjective was one of the least controversial, I’m willing — in light of a few people not liking my disparaging comments about DC’s government — to say I should not have said that. I assumed, incorrectly, that our government was notoriously bad at dealing with everything from education to expenses.

    Okay, then you think I’ve somehow disparaged proponents of same-sex marriage as believing that this is the most important civil rights issue in the world. I can respond to that, simply, with this link. The first result is David Boies, currently trying to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage, saying that the issue is the most important in the country and various other people saying it’s the most important issue of “our time.” DC City Councilwoman Mary Cheh referred to same-sex marriage as the most important civil rights issue of the era. I mean, yes, I was pointing out that some same-sex marriage advocates think this is the most important civil rights issue today but I also pointed out that some opponents think it’s “pernicious.” I think that if I mischaracterized one side or another, it was by being a bit rough on the opponents of same-sex marriage.

    But the point is that neither was I gratuitous or snide.

    Your final comment is just factually untrue. You claim — without any substantiation — that I want journalists to “gin up speculative scare-mongering about the possible “unintended consequences” (Earthquakes! Volcanoes! Dogs and cats living together!)of these laws.”

    That’s not at all what I wrote and, in fact, I can’t imagine a more unfair characterization of what I did write.

    What might help for you to understand the concept of exploring unintended consequences (which can be as simple as insurance coverage being changed, as my post from today notes) is to read the essay I linked to on how laws intended to help families ended up hurting families. One of the examples the economist cites is assisted housing. Another is making it easier for single mothers to obtain government benefits. Perhaps if policymakers had thought a bit more about possible consequences, they might have crafted policy decisions a bit better.

    Exploring unintended consequences is simply something responsible people should do. It doesn’t mean that people will change their minds on same-sex marriage laws. It just means that they will be making more informed choices about the consequences of retaining or changing laws.

    Like I said, I had been able to predict changes to insurance on my own. I mean, I remember thinking about it while discussing the issue, drinking wine on a veranda in New Orleans a few years ago. Something tells me that some sociologists, economists, family policy experts, religious liberty scholars, civil rights activists, etc. — legitimate folks who study these things for a living — might have some insight into what we can expect.

    Why wouldn’t we want to know? Why shouldn’t journalists cover it?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Lymis–the headline on the Telegraph story is “Clergy could be sued if they refuse to carry out ‘gay marriages’ traditionalists fear.” And based on events in Canada and other parts of Europe–and now even in the U.S.–they have every reason to fear laws being passed that open the way to a financial lawsuit hell for those who will not burn incense before the altar of gay activism.
    That is the tone of the article and it is not “inflammatory”–unless you consider the truth inflammatory.

  • michael


    It seems like you’re willing to do mental acrobatics to avoid having to think about this–or having anyone else think about it. And I don’t get your reasoning at all. Let’s say I smoke 6 packs of cigarettes a day. I do it because I like to smoke, not because I intend to kill myself. Dying prematurely form lung cancer is an ‘unintended’ consequence. Does that mean there is no point in thinking about the likely outcome if I smoke 6 packs a day?

    In fact, most consequences are unintended and we speculate on them all the time, because the fact that they are uninintended does not make them unintelligible or even unpredictable within certain margins of error. Normalizing gay marriage carries with it a certain logic and certain implications that are not that difficult to reason through, and certain quasi-predictable effects which are arguably already coming to pass. Forcing decisions about health benefits is just one, which seemed the point of the original post. Why are you so averse to thinking rigorously (as opposed to sensationally) about the likely implications of this? Why is it necessarily ‘sensational’ to try to make the unforessen foreseen. Would you prefer that the state and courts not deliberate about consequences and implications when making this decision? Are you suggesting the responsible thing to do is treat this question as if it existed in a vaccuum?

  • Suzanne

    I stated before, I think it’s valuable to look at other places that have allowed gay marriage and what the consequences were of that. There are a number of countries in the world, and now, several states in the country that have done so and looking at the actual outcomes is definitely instructive.

    The problem with Jane Galt’s examples is that we have no idea what other possible unintended consequences were out there that were bandied about and never happened. It’s likely there were many that never came to pass. In hindsight, somebody always gets to be a genius, but reporters can’t pick those people in advance.

    So in addition to talking about insurance, we’ve also got to sort through all those who say allowing gay marriage is going to lead to people marrying 4-year-olds, or their dogs or on the other side, that it’s going to lead to a huge drop in divorces since there will be less reason for gays and lesbians to marry heterosexually. And somebody gets to be right in 20 years. But in the meantime, we also deal out a lot of junk theories that never go anywhere.