By Laura Wright
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON – Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington closed its 80-year-old foster care and public adoption program in the District of Columbia so the agency would not have to violate Church teaching by licensing same-sex couples as foster or adoptive parents.

The program – which covered 43 children and their biological families, 35 foster families and seven staff members – was transferred to the National Center for Children and Families Feb. 1.

Under a new law allowing same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia, Catholic Charities would have been required to place children with same-sex parents for foster care and adoption, which would violate Church teaching that marriage is a permanent union between one man and one woman.

“Catholic Charities has been providing foster care in one form or another for decades. … To transition this to another agency certainly was a real loss for us,” said Edward Orzechowski, president and CEO of Catholic Charities.

The National Center for Children and Families “shares our commitment to permanency for children, and our perspective that foster parents are real partners with us in serving these children,” he said.

The law is currently under congressional review, but the district is scheduled to begin issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples in March. Two members of Congress have introduced legislation that would require the district to hold a referendum on the same-sex marriage issue before licenses could be issued.

The same-sex marriage law “in many ways, forced us to either compromise our faith’s teachings or comply with the law. … We will not compromise our faith’s teachings, so we felt we had no choice but to transition (the foster care and public adoption program) to another agency,” Orzechowski said.

Catholic Charities, which operates more than 20 social service programs in the district, does not anticipate any other programs being affected by the legislation.

The new law also affects benefits provided to employees in the district, but Orzechowski said he remained confident that Catholic Charities will find a way to structure their benefits package without recognizing same-sex marriage, so the agency can continue partnering with the city.

“We are considering all alternatives of how we might meet the law. We have not come to a final decision, but we are studying all options,” he said, adding that Catholic Charities needs to have a plan in place before the same-sex marriage bill is expected to become law in mid-March.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington serves the district and five Maryland counties. Last year, the organization provided more than 124,000 people with support related to housing, food, legal aid, physical and mental health, and other services.

Officials from the agency and the archdiocese held several meetings with members of the district’s City Council and testified before the council asking its members to expand the religious liberty protections in the new bill, but their concerns were rejected.

“This is the most narrow religious freedom exemption in the country,” Orzechowski said, adding that the law creates a real challenge for the church, forcing organizations like Catholic Charities, in instances such as the foster care outreach, to choose between their religious beliefs and serving in the public square.

An interfaith coalition of religious leaders also asked the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics to take the matter to voters by approving a ballot initiative defining marriage as between a man and a woman and a referendum overturning enactment of the same-sex marriage bill.

The board turned down the request Feb. 4. The next day Auxiliary Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Washington sent an analysis of the law to priests in which he said that by refusing to allow district residents to vote on same-sex marriage, the board was undermining religious freedom and promoting “partisan paternalism under the guise of righteousness.”