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Book of Matthew: Mr. Priest goes to Washington: Same-sex marriage in our nation’s capital

Published: November 20, 2009
Section: Opinions


For those of you who hail from Washington D.C., I have something for you to think about as you head home for the Thanksgiving and winter breaks: The Catholic Church is blackmailing your city. And I bet you’ll never guess what they’re fighting over.

The D.C. Council—the district’s legislative branch—is considering a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage, which is currently only legal in four states. The bill is scheduled to be voted on next month.

It ought to pass fairly easily, given the city’s (and council’s) heavy partisan slant toward the usually gay-friendly Democratic Party. There’s a small problem, though. Council members are facing strong opposition from the Washington Archdiocese.

This opposition is not particularly surprising. We’re talking about the Catholic Church, after all—an organization not exactly known for its reputation of being open-minded and accepting. (Launched the Crusades, imprisoned Galileo, still doesn’t officially believe that contraception prevents AIDS … all in a millennium’s work).

But what is a bit surprising is the length that the church—which usually stays out of D.C. political matters—is willing to go to fight the council on this issue. About a week ago, the church released a statement saying that in the event of the bill’s passage, it would discontinue the social services programs it runs in partnership with the district. The church claimed that they were reacting to what they saw as the council’s infringement upon the right to religious freedom.

If the bill were to become law, they said, religious groups who receive city funds would be forced to do all kinds of ungodly things for same-sex couples, such as renting them a church hall (heaven forbid). Never mind the fact that the actual bill doesn’t require any religious organizations to perform or make space for same-sex weddings. All it does is force them to obey anti-discrimination laws (oh, heaven forbid).

For their part, council members have done a decent job of ignoring the church’s stance and moving the legislation forward. Yet this is quite a threat nonetheless. The church spends $10 million of its own money on social programs that serve an estimated 68,000 people in the city, many of whom are homeless. Cutting that off would devastate the city’s poor, leaving them with even fewer places to turn in difficult times such as these.

You would think that the good priests would care about that. But instead of living up to its self-imposed obligation to help those in need and dedicating its time and energy to charitable activities, the church has made the decision to give precedence to its intolerant, backward dogma.

And with that, we come ever closer to the culmination of a growing trend in the fight for same-sex marriage equality. Show me any state or district in the Union where allowing same-sex marriage has come into question, and I’ll show you a religious group that has dedicated serious resources to stopping it. In Maine two weeks ago, it was the Catholic Church. In California last year, it was the Mormons who crossed over from Utah. It seems that with each victory, these groups become more emboldened and more likely to throw their weight around.

Perhaps there’s something we can do. If organized religions are going to be so quick to jump into heated policy debates, then maybe it’s time for the government to take another look at … oh, I don’t know … their tax-exempt status? The American assets of the Catholic Church alone could probably provide enough of a tax base to fund more social programs than they could ever hope to shut down.

Yes, I know that would probably never happen. Taxing a religion probably qualifies as “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” in the minds of legal professionals and Constitutional scholars, and we can’t do that. But I can’t help but hold out for a glimmer of hope. After all, if the church isn’t interested in maintaining separation of church and state, why let them reap all the benefits without paying any of the dues?

It’s not like they can complain too much about being taxed anyway. As a very famous man once said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Know who I’m talking about, Catholics? That’s the guy whose gospel you claim to spread—somewhere amid the ornate robes and immense churches.

That’s also the guy who would probably rather you take care of the poor, instead of fret about other people’s marriages.