DC archdiocese abandoning poor?

Photo of a Collection PlateAs a rule, GetReligion doesn't deal with opinion columns. However, the headline on this fiercely opinionated effort by Petula Dvorak of the Washington Post really caught my eye the other day:

Catholic officials shouldn't forsake D.C.'s poor in gay marriage fight

The issue, once again, is the announcement by the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., to stop accepting city government money for social-work programs rather than change its doctrines to fit in with the District's plans to legalize gay marriages. Of course, the city already has some gay-rights laws on the books and, so far, it appears that the church has managed to find ways to hire gays and lesbians who still support the church's teachings. But now a new line about to be drawn and everyone is dealing with it -- including the press.

For Dvorak, this means that Catholic leaders are about the throw the poor out into the streets, proving that the archbishop and his troops are, in reality, bad Christians. Thus, we read:

By trying to play political hardball with the District, no matter how carefully they word their objection to the bill, officials at the Archdiocese of Washington and Catholic Charities are telling our city's most vulnerable people -- homeless families, sick children, low-income mothers -- that they are willing to throw them on the table as a bargaining chip.

What the Church is doing is an uncharitable and cruel maneuver.

But here is my journalistic problem. Look at the headline again.

Has the church said anything about cutting the amount of money that it spends on the poor? If anything, I would imagine that church officials will -- when the city money is cut off -- move heaven and earth in an attempt to raise more money on their own in order to continue as many of these ministries as they can at current levels. Is it "forsaking the poor" for the church to decline to compromise on its doctrine in order to work with the city, if the church continues to invest as much of its own resources on the poor as before? Is that an accurate way -- in terms of basic journalism -- to frame the issue?

After all, the city can turn to the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, Reform Jews, Unitarians and others who are willing to accept its new mandates on moral theology. The city has other options. It can go ahead and spend its money. Right? Surely these other churches can step up and cooperate and do the work?

If you think this isn't a religious issue for Dvorak, read on:

The problem is that taking a stand like this goes against the mission of the Church and the important lessons it has taught millions of followers.

I'm not going to make this an argument in favor of same-sex marriage. Anyone who opposes such basic civil rights will find themselves on the wrong side of history. It's a civil rights issue, and I believe the argument should end right there. But in this case, the message the Church is sending with its actions is wrong, and it has left me and countless other Catholics heartbroken.

Now, I know that this is a column. I totally understand that Dvorak has every right to state the issue in this manner and the Post has every right to run her column. She is also candid, confessing that she now stands on the outer fringe of the church in which she was raised, clearly because she strongly disagrees with many of its doctrines.

40+Stacks+2Meanwhile, over in the newspaper's hard-news pages, this is what we read, as the writers and reporters face this collision between gay rights and religious liberty:

"It's a dangerous thing when the Catholic Church starts writing and determining the legislation and the laws of the District of Columbia," said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Human Services Committee.

Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, countered that the city is "the one giving the ultimatum."

"We are not threatening to walk out of the city," Gibbs said. "The city is the one saying, 'If you want to continue partnering with the city, then you cannot follow your faith teachings.' "

Under the bill, headed for a 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. Church officials say Catholic Charities would have to suspend its social services work for the city, rather than provide employee benefits to same-sex married couples or allow them to adopt.

Other than the usual vague language about "religious organizations" -- a term that could apply to all kinds of groups, with different rights under our nation's history of church-state separation -- that's actually pretty straight forward. Note that church officials are allowed to accurately state that its charities would have to "suspend its social services work for the city," not suspend its social services work -- period. That's a crucial fact.

And later, we read:

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said he plans to meet with his colleagues Friday to discuss the issue. But he added, "I don't know where the compromise would be.

"It seems to me if they choose not to provide those services, we will have to find someone else," Gray said.

Yes, they will. And this story is not likely to go away any time soon. As the Post team notes:

Linda C. McClain, a law professor at Boston University who is studying the same-sex marriage debate nationwide, said the outcome of the standoff between the District and the Church could have far-reaching implications for other states.

"This case really pits the commitment to religious freedom against the importance of anti-discrimination," McClain said. "The courts have been pretty clear that you can't force a religious organization to express a message it doesn't agree with. ... But it's a tougher case to say you won't be able to provide services to the poor because of this."

But there is the point, again, that journalists must grasp. The city is rejecting the church on a crucial point of doctrine, as it is free to do (subject to the actions of voters and courts). The church is also free to reject the city, in defense of 2,000 years of teaching on this particular issue.

The city is poised to make a choice and, then, will try to do its work. The church will strive to do its work, as best it can. From the church's perspective, governments come and go.

Meanwhile, the doctrines have clashed and that is that. Is the church rejecting the poor? The skilled professionals in the Post newsroom need to think twice before they draw that conclusion from the current facts.

A reminder: We will be discussing the journalistic decisions made in these two Post articles, not the subject of same-sex marriage and the Catholic Church's teachings on that doctrinal issue. Think journalism.

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