The Archdiocese of Washington's decision to drop its foster care program is the first casualty of the District of Columbia's pending same-sex marriage law that will obligate all outside contractors dealing with the city to recognize gay couples.
Its decision, posted late Tuesday on the archdiocese's Web site, announced that the archdiocese had ended its 80-year-old program Feb. 1, the day the city's contract expired with Catholic Charities, the church's social services arm.
"We regret that our efforts to avoid this outcome were not successful," Catholic Charities Chief Executive Officer Ed Orzechowski said in a statement. "Foster care has been an important ministry for us for many decades. We worked very hard to be able to continue to provide these services in the District."
Catholic Charities' caseload of 43 children and 35 foster families was transferred, along with seven staffers, to the Bethesda, Md.-based National Center for Children and Families so as not to disrupt client care.
The transfer of services also means Catholic Charities will discontinue offering public adoption services. The agency processed 12 such adoptions throughout 2009 and including into this year.
"It was a very high-quality program, so this was really hard," archdiocesan spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said of the foster care/adoption service. "We said last fall that we could not continue this program if the bill was passed as written. Well, this has come to pass."
The Vatican has long opposed any church role in aiding homosexuals to adopt. In 2003, it said that placing children into same-sex households was "gravely immoral."
But with more states legalizing same-sex unions, the Washington Archdiocese is the third diocese in the country to leave the adoption/foster care business. The archdioceses of San Francisco and Boston, which had contracts with California and Massachusetts, respectively, ceased their programs in 2006 after each state legalized gay marriages and made it clear that the local Catholic Charities affiliate would have to work with homosexual couples. (California has since repealed its law allowing same-sex marriage.)
Until then, both of their Catholic Charities affiliates had been processing a limited number of adoptions of hard-to-place foster children to gay parents until top church officials pressured them to stop.
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, said the Washington Archdiocese had little choice.
"Archbishop Donald Wuerl … did not want to end the foster-care program, but he was left with no realistic option," Mr. Donohue said in a statement. "District lawmakers could have granted the kind of religious exemptions that would have ensured a continuation of services, but instead they sought to create a Catch-22 situation for the archdiocese.
"Surely, they knew that Archbishop Wuerl was not going to negotiate Catholic Church teachings on marriage, yet that hardly mattered to them. The real losers are the children who were served by the Catholic Church."
Americans United applauded Catholic Charities' decision to withdraw.
"If faith-based charities cannot or will not obey civil rights laws," the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director, said in a statement Wednesday, "they ought not benefit from public funds."
But Mr. Donohue noted that the government is less exacting in its demands on other groups that receive public funds.
"Those who say Wuerl is throwing the kids overboard are phonies. If Planned Parenthood were told that as a condition of public funding it had to refer Catholic women having second thoughts about abortion to a crisis pregnancy center, it would scream violation of church and state, refuse the money and end this program."
The foster care and adoption programs had been two among the 63 social service programs that the D.C. government paid Catholic Charities $22.5 million to run. Of that amount, $2 million went to the foster care program.
Left unresolved is how Catholic Charities plans to continue as a city contractor if it is forced to offer employment-related benefits to the partners of gay employees.
Erik Salmi, a spokesman for Catholic Charities' Washington branch, said there are openly gay employees among the agency's 850-member work force, but the benefits issue "hasn't come up yet as an issue because the law hasn't [taken effect] yet."
The law is slated to go into effect March 2.