The Magazine

Banned in Boston

The coming conflict between same-sex marriage and religious liberty.

May 15, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 33 • By MAGGIE GALLAGHER
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CATHOLIC CHARITIES OF BOSTON made the announcement on March 10: It was getting out of the adoption business. "We have encountered a dilemma we cannot resolve. . . . The issue is adoption to same-sex couples."

It was shocking news. Catholic Charities of Boston, one of the nation's oldest adoption agencies, had long specialized in finding good homes for hard to place kids. "Catholic Charities was always at the top of the list," Paula Wisnewski, director of adoption for the Home for Little Wanderers, told the Boston Globe. "It's a shame because it is certainly going to mean that fewer children from foster care are going to find permanent homes." Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said simply, "This is a tragedy for kids."

How did this tragedy happen?

It's a complicated story. Massachusetts law prohibited "orientation discrimination" over a decade ago. Then in November 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered gay marriage. The majority ruled that only animus against gay people could explain why anyone would want to treat opposite-sex and same-sex couples differently. That same year, partly in response to growing pressure for gay marriage and adoption both here and in Europe, a Vatican statement made clear that placing children with same-sex couples violates Catholic teaching.

Then in October 2005, the Boston Globe broke the news: Boston Catholic Charities had placed a small number of children with same-sex couples. Sean Cardinal O'Malley, who has authority over Catholic Charities of Boston, responded by stating that the agency would no longer do so.

Seven members of the Boston Catholic Charities board (about one-sixth of the membership) resigned in protest. Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which lobbies for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equal rights, issued a thundering denunciation of the Catholic hierarchy: "These bishops are putting an ugly political agenda before the needs of very vulnerable children. Every one of the nation's leading children's welfare groups agrees that a parent's sexual orientation is irrelevant to his or her ability to raise a child. What these bishops are doing is shameful, wrong, and has nothing to do whatsoever with faith."

But getting square with the church didn't end Catholic Charities' woes. To operate in Massachusetts, an adoption agency must be licensed by the state. And to get a license, an agency must pledge to obey state laws barring discrimination--including the decade-old ban on orientation discrimination. With the legalization of gay marriage in the state, discrimination against same-sex couples would be outlawed, too.

Cardinal O'Malley asked Governor Mitt Romney for a religious exemption from the ban on orientation discrimination. Governor Romney reluctantly responded that he lacked legal authority to grant one unilaterally, by executive order. So the governor and archbishop turned to the state legislature, requesting a conscience exemption that would allow Catholic Charities to continue to help kids in a manner consistent with Catholic teaching.

To date, not a single other Massachusetts political leader appears willing to consider even the narrowest religious exemption. Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, the Republican candidate for governor in this fall's election, refused to budge: "I believe that any institution that wants to provide services that are regulated by the state has to abide by the laws of the state," Healey told the Boston Globe on March 2, "and our antidiscrimination laws are some of our most important."

From there, it was only a short step to the headline "State Putting Church Out of Adoption Business," which ran over an opinion piece in the Boston Globe by John Garvey, dean of Boston College Law School. It's worth underscoring that Catholic Charities' problem with the state didn't hinge on its receipt of public money. Ron Madnick, president of the Massachusetts chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, agreed with Garvey's assessment: "Even if Catholic Charities ceased receiving tax support and gave up its role as a state contractor, it still could not refuse to place children with same-sex couples."

This March, then, unexpectedly, a mere two years after the introduction of gay marriage in America, a number of latent concerns about the impact of this innovation on religious freedom ceased to be theoretical. How could Adam and Steve's marriage possibly hurt anyone else? When religious-right leaders prophesy negative consequences from gay marriage, they are often seen as overwrought. The First Amendment, we are told, will protect religious groups from persecution for their views about marriage.

So who is right? Is the fate of Catholic Charities of Boston an aberration or a sign of things to come?