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Banned In Boston

This column was written by Maggie Gallagher.


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?

I put the question to Anthony Picarello, president and general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket Fund is widely recognized as one of the best religious liberty law firms and the only one that defends the religious liberty of all faith groups, "from Anglicans to Zoroastrians," as its founder Kevin J. Hasson likes to say (referring to actual clients the Becket Fund has defended).

Just how serious are the coming conflicts over religious liberty stemming from gay marriage?

"The impact will be severe and pervasive," Picarello says flatly. "This is going to affect every aspect of church-state relations." Recent years, he predicts, will be looked back on as a time of relative peace between church and state, one where people had the luxury of litigating cases about things like the Ten Commandments in courthouses. In times of relative peace, says Picarello, people don't even notice that "the church is surrounded on all sides by the state; that church and state butt up against each other. The boundaries are usually peaceful, so it's easy sometimes to forget they are there. But because marriage affects just about every area of the law, gay marriage is going to create a point of conflict at every point around the perimeter."

For scholars, these will be interesting times: Want to know exactly where the borders of church and state are located? "Wait a few years," Picarello laughs. The flood of litigation surrounding each point of contact will map out the territory. For religious liberty lawyers, there are boom times ahead. As one Becket Fund donor told Picarello ruefully, "At least you know you're not in the buggy whip business."

Picarello is a Harvard-trained litigator experienced in religious liberty issues. But predicting the legal consequences of as big a change as gay marriage is a job for more than one mind. So last December, the Becket Fund brought together 10 religious liberty scholars of right and left to look at the question of the impact of gay marriage on the freedom of religion. Picarello summarizes: "All the scholars we got together see a problem; they all see a conflict coming. They differ on how it should be resolved and who should win, but they all see a conflict coming."

These are not necessarily scholars who oppose gay marriage. Chai Feldblum, for example, is a Georgetown law professor who refers to herself as "part of an inner group of public-intellectual movement leaders committed to advancing LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual] equality in this country." Marc Stern is the general counsel for the center-left American Jewish Congress. Robin Wilson of the University of Maryland law school is undecided on gay marriage. Jonathan Turley of George Washington Law School has supported legalizing not only gay marriage but also polygamy.

Reading through these and the other scholars' papers, I noticed an odd feature. Generally speaking, the scholars most opposed to gay marriage were somewhat less likely than others to foresee large conflicts ahead — perhaps because they tended to find it "inconceivable," as Doug Kmiec of Pepperdine Law School put it, that "a successful analogy will be drawn in the public mind between irrational, and morally repugnant, racial discrimination and the rational, and at least morally debatable, differentiation of traditional and same-sex marriage." That's a key consideration. For if orientation is like race, then people who oppose gay marriage will be treated under law like bigots who opposed interracial marriage. Sure, we don't arrest people for being racists, but the law does intervene in powerful ways to punish and discourage racial discrimination, not only by government but also by private entities. Doug Laycock, a religious liberty expert at the University of Texas Law School, similarly told me we are a "long way" from equating orientation with race in the law.

By contrast, the scholars who favor gay marriage found it relatively easy to foresee looming legal pressures on faith-based organizations opposed to gay marriage, perhaps because many of these scholars live in social and intellectual circles where the shift Kmiec regards as inconceivable has already happened. They have less trouble imagining that people and groups who oppose gay marriage will soon be treated by society and the law the way we treat racists because that's pretty close to the world in which they live now.

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Maggie Gallagher is president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy (marriagedebate.com) and coauthor of "The Case for Marriage."

By Maggie Gallagher
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