Gay marriage and unintended consequences

D.C. High School Students Collect Food for the Needy

So yesterday we talked a bit about some of the tensions between religious freedom and gay rights. The Washington Post has a nice follow-up on the matter of Catholic Charities changing its health coverage benefits to comply with both church law defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman and new D.C. laws legalizing same-sex marriage.

D.C. archbishop defends Catholic Charities' stand on health benefits

Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl said Tuesday that the decision by Catholic Charities to change its health coverage to avoid offering benefits to same-sex spouses of its workers is justifiable under Catholic teaching as long as the employees are paid a just wage.

"The Catholic Church teaches to pay a just wage. The compensation package you use to pay that just wage isn't defined by the church," Wuerl said during an interview with Washington Post writers and editors. "Employers have the right to frame compensation packages. . . . At the end of the day, Catholic Charities is here serving the needy, after the law has passed, in complete conformity with the law."

I don't see anything wrong with the way this story begins or is framed, per se, but I do think it's interesting that the church is put on the defensive rather than the DC City Council. I may be wrong, as I sometimes have trouble navigating the Washington Post web site, but I don't think there was any story where reporters went to the council members who voted to change the law and asked them if they'd thought about any of the unforeseen consequences of their vote or whether they worried they were burdening religious groups too much.

You know what would be a good series for someone to pen? Considering all the unintended consequences of changing marriage law. I myself predicted that insurance coverage would be one of the first things to change but I bet people who actually think about this stuff have considered a ton of potential changes in everything from family dynamics to business decisions to the layers of law that have been formed with a different idea of marriage in mind. You could probably write a story every day for a year and still not run of out ideas. Take this:

On Monday, it told its 800 employees that it would not make spousal health benefits available to any new employee, straight or gay, to any current employee who marries in the future or to spouses of current employees who are not covered by the plan.

How might that change affect a young couple that wants one spouse to stay at home and raise the children? If they're already operating on one salary -- and presumably a low non-profit type salary -- will that in any way change their decision to work for Catholic Charities? If these changes are replicated throughout the country, would it have a significant effect on such decisions? Do we care? What if marriage law is changed to permit, as some prominent same-sex marriage advocates hope, "small group marriages"? Will even secular companies drop insurance benefits for spouses? Then how will that change family dynamics? (If you're in any way interested in this topic, here's a great article from years ago about how changes in policy can have widespread and unforeseen consequences.)

Maybe it won't change family dynamics, but I'd sure like to see some media coverage that explained why or why not.

Okay, back to the story. One thing I liked about the story was that it showed how reaction among Catholics was mixed. You have the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issuing a strong defense of the decision, the executive director of the progressive group Catholics United disagreeing with the decision, and an employee giving her own view:

One employee, Michelle Mendez, who helps immigrants as a staff attorney in the legal service program at Catholic Charities, described it as a sensitive issue for employees.

"I disagree with it on a personal level," she said. "I think it's unfortunate to cut off benefits and worry about the effect it may have on employees' families. But on a public level, I understand how hard the decision was and where the organization is coming from."

As a Catholic believer, she said the church needs to keep to its tenets. But as an employee who might marry sometime and need health insurance for a spouse, she wishes the option were still there. "But at the end of the day, the reason we work at a place like this is to make a difference," she said. "As long as we can continue doing that, that's what's most important."

The most interesting part of the article, from my perspective, came at the very end:

Wuerl said that with the decision to curtail benefits, he thought no other social service contracts with the city would be affected. He repeated during the two-hour interview that he thought the church and other faith-based groups were facing new opposition because of their beliefs about sexuality.

"No one in the past said, 'Because you're motivated by love of the Gospel, you can't perform [social services.]' The question always was: 'Did you serve everyone?' And the answer was yes," said Wuerl, who said The Post had unfairly characterized the church as having a choice. He cited an expression, "The prophet isn't judged by the success of his message but fidelity of his message."

I actually think this could have been explained a bit more. He's saying, I think, that no one seemed to complain about the Catholic Church's doctrinal views when it meant that those moves motivated them to do excellent work on social services (such as a food drive for the needy, pictured above). But when they remain faithful to those same teachings, now they're facing opposition? I think that it would be great to give gay rights activists a chance to respond to this. I also would love to hear a bit more from this 2-hour interview about Wuerl's criticism of the "choice" angle. Maybe there will be excerpts of a transcript posted. Or maybe the team there is working on a larger story about this issue. I hope so.

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