THE CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF DC IS THREATENING to withdraw social service programs that it runs if the city passes a same sex marriage bill that forces the church to obey city laws opposing discrimination against lesbians and gays.
According to the spokesperson for the archidiocese, "The city is saying in order to provide social services, you need to be secular. For us, that's really a problem."
We've heard this before, of course in the arguments about "religious freedom" that were raised here in Canada in the debate leading up to the victory of gay marriage. And, as in DC, religious organizations won't be required to allow same sex marriages on premises. However, they will have to provide same sex benefits to their employees. And they won't be allowed to discriminate in church run adoption services.
This blackmail by the church raises two questions that the gay and lesbian liberation movement is grappling with in the US. The first has to do with religious freedom. Frankly, the freedom to practice religion should not be the freedom to practice and promote discrimination and oppression. Churches receive tax free status and other public benefits, which makes this stance particularly galling. But even if they didn't - even if they were private for-profit businesses - they should not be permitted to discriminate. It wasn't acceptable when lunch counters would refuse to serve African-Americans and it isn't acceptable when a privately run wedding hall refuses to rent to a gay couple.
The second thing is that while winning gay rights in a geographically piecemeal way can help to give momentum, it can also divide and diffuse the movement, forcing lesbians, gays and their supporters to rush from place to place to try and hold up their basic rights. And it can allow the bigots to concentrate their resources. The result can be a series of Maine-like defeats that causes the struggle to lose momentum. What's more, the equal rights of lesbians and gays shouldn't be subject to a vote.
That means winning political victories at the national level - overturning the military's "don't ask, don't tell" law and the Bush-sponsored "Defense of Marriage Act". It means forcing the federal government to enforce the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, which specifically prohibits states from enacting laws that remove the rights of US citizens, which are guaranteed under the Amendment. As this article notes, the support to win rights for gays and lesbians is there (90% oppose discrimination in the workplace), far more than it was for African-Americans in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. What is needed is a movement to mobilize that sentiment and to extend it to full civil rights.