Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reality Check: The Big Lie About Catholic Charities, Adoption and Marriage Equality

Last month’s marriage equality hearing in Rhode Island left me feeling a little like Congressman Joe “You Lie!” Wilson. Wilson, you’ll recall, shouted his infamous exclamation at President Obama after the president stated in a speech to Congress that his health care legislation would not provide free health coverage for illegal immigrants, despite what vocal opponents of the healthcare bill were saying. As I watched Austin Nimocks of the anti-gay Alliance Defense Fund testify without blinking that marriage equality in Massachusetts “forced” Catholic Charities of Boston out of the adoption business, it was all I could do not to let loose a “You Lie!” right there in the marbled halls of the Rhode Island State House. Okay, I might have said something to that effect in a rather loud stage whisper, right before tweeting Nimocks’ comment with a terse analysis (“LIE!”) to our roughly 3500 Twitter followers. But the big difference between me and Joe Wilson is that my “You Lie!” moment was justified. Nimocks, unlike President Obama, was indeed lying. And no amount of truthiness on his part can change that fact.

It’s true that professional right-wingers have been spreading lies about gay people since Anita Bryant in the 1970s accused gay people of recruiting America’s children “to freshen their ranks” because they couldn’t have kids of their own. And if the LGBT community spent all of its time debunking their whoppers, we wouldn’t have much time to work on more important things, like passing marriage equality legislation.

So why is exposing this particular lie important? First of all because Rhode Island is one of the most Catholic states in the country, and the Catholic Church is lobbying hard against marriage equality legislation there. Their efforts seem to be having an impact, as the Providence Phoenix recently reported.

Secondly, since the Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee is set to hear testimony on marriage equality legislation today, senators are likely to hear the Catholic Charities lie over and over again, among other specious arguments about how allowing same-sex couples in the Ocean State access to civil marriage will destroy religious freedom.

Lastly, this is an issue I followed closely not for just professional reasons – I was on staff at the LGBT newspaper Bay Windows when the saga unfolded – but deeply personal ones. I and my four siblings were all adopted through Catholic Charities, so I know firsthand the immeasurable value of their good work. In 2006 I wrote an essay about my own experience and the impact of the agency’s decision to quit the adoption business.

So here’s a little reality check. Catholic Charities of Boston was not forced out of the adoption business because of marriage equality in Massachusetts. The organization voluntarily ceased doing adoptions after the state’s four Catholic Bishops got wind that gay parents had been adopting kids through Catholic Charities from an October 2005 Boston Globe story. Not surprisingly, all of this happened as the Massachusetts Legislature was wrestling with whether to put an anti-gay marriage amendment on the statewide ballot, which the local Catholic hierarchy supported wholeheartedly.

The Globe reported that over the course of about two decades, Catholic Charities placed 13 children with gay parents, out of about 720 adoptions they facilitated during those years. For the record, those 13 children were considered hard to place with adoptive parents because they were older or had physical or emotional difficulties, meaning had they not found loving parents who happened to be gay, they’d likely not have parents. Catholic Charities was accepting state funds to provide adoption services and was thus bound by the state’s gay-inclusive anti-discrimination law not to reject qualified adoptive parents based on sexual orientation. Oh, and by the way, the non-discrimination law has been on the books since 1989 -- long before marriage equality was but a doodle on Mary Bonauto’s legal pad.

The Globe also reported that though Catholic Charities President Bryan Hehir didn’t love the idea of placing children with same-sex couples, he saw it as “a legal accommodation in the name of a greater social good.” The story later states that, “Hehir said that to his knowledge, his agency has never sought an exemption from the nondiscrimination language.”

At least not until the four bishops, led by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, decided that Catholic Charities should be exempt from the state’s non-discrimination law, a move that was detailed in a March 11, 2006 Globe article about Catholic Charities decision to stop doing adoptions. When that proved to be a non-starter on Beacon Hill, the bishops simply elected to shut down Catholic Charities of Boston’s adoption services – despite a unanimous vote by the agency’s 42-member board to continue facilitating adoptions by gay people. As the Globe reported on March 11, Hehir and Catholic Charities board president Jeffrey Kaneb said the decision stemmed from their inability “to reconcile church teaching that placement of children in gay homes is “immoral” with Massachusetts law prohibiting discrimination against gays.” No mention of marriage equality as the reason for the policy change. In fact, nowhere in the entirety of the joint statement they released at the time do Hehir and Kaneb say same-sex marriage played a role in the decision to terminate adoption services. Because it didn’t.

In reality, it was just garden variety anti-gay bigotry on the part of four Catholic bishops that killed Catholic Charities of Boston adoption services. Who knew?

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