Binding Charity

Posted: Feb 28, 2006 10:05 AM

If I told you that someone’s religious freedom was being violated or they were being persecuted, you would immediately think that I was talking about what’s happening in China or Vietnam. And while these are certainly the most egregious examples, religious freedom is also being trampled in a place that is, for me at least, closer to home: Massachusetts.

In Massachusetts, adoption agencies must be licensed by the state and adhere to the state’s anti-discrimination laws, including laws prohibiting discrimination against gay couples.

This puts Catholic Charities in a bind. The Vatican has called gay adoptions “gravely immoral” and said that they do “violence” to children. By “violence” it means taking advantage of the children’s “dependency” to place them “in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development.”

At the same time, Catholic Charities wants to help children in need of a home. The most obvious way out of the dilemma is an exemption from the law, what’s commonly called a “conscience clause,” which is done all the time. So, the bishops of Boston, Worcester, Springfield, and Fall River hired a law firm to “explore legal and political strategies for opting out of gay adoptions.”

Last week, they got the bad news: Governor Mitt Romney informed them that “he was not authorized to give such an exemption.” And State Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty told them that the legislature was unlikely to enact such an exemption.

This leaves the bishops, who, at least nominally, control Catholic Charities, with two choices: Allow gay adoptions or get out of the adoption business altogether.

Actually, there’s a third option: Find ways around the law. Now, this is what the Worcester branch did. It refers prospective gay adopters to other agencies. But even this has prompted state officials to investigate the agency for possibly “flouting” the laws against discrimination.

Well, this all shouldn’t really surprise anyone. What motivate regulations like this one isn’t the interests of the children—it’s the interests of adults. Truth be told, Catholic Charities and other faith-based groups care a whole lot more about the children than those who enforce these kinds of rules.

It also shouldn’t surprise us that even in the most Catholic state in the United States, Massachusetts, the legislators and government officials won’t grant an exemption for religious groups. Legally and culturally, religion is increasingly being treated as a purely private affair whose teachings must yield to any so-called public purpose. You’re free to believe what you want, of course, so long as it doesn’t affect how you behave.

What’s more, rules like the Massachusetts one embody a cynical calculation: The enforcers are betting that, in the end, the desire to help these kids will trump the desire to adhere to Catholic teaching.

In other words, it’s a kind of hostage-taking: “You do what we say or you’re going to risk the well-being of these kids.” Now, this characterization might outrage the supporters of the policy, but their outrage can’t begin to compare to what Christians ought to feel, faced with such a cynical ploy.

Doing good should not require doing violence to your conscience. Apparently, officials in Massachusetts have forgotten this, which puts them in very bad company indeed when it comes to religious freedom.


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Patricia Wen, “Bishops Dealt Setback in Pursuit of Gay Adoption Exemption,” Boston Globe, 17 February 2006.

Steve Weatherbe, “Boston Catholic Charities Defends Homosexual Adoptions,” National Catholic Register, 18 November 2005.

Stephen McGarvey, “Addressing Gay Marriage with Truth AND Grace: An Interview with Erwin Lutzer,” BreakPoint Online, 24 September 2004.

Art Lindsley, True Truth: Defending Absolute Truth in a Relativistic World (InterVarsity, 2004).