e-mail us
Archbishop Levada threatens suit against gay rights law

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Archbishop William Levada, a staunch conservative appointed to head the San Francisco archdiocese last year, initiated his first public battle with the city recently when he threatened to sue over the city's new domestic partnership law, which recognizes gay and lesbian couples.

Levada arrived in the archdiocese with a reputation for being far more conservative than his predecessor, Archbishop John Quinn. Except for a brief earlier statement about homosexual unions being a threat to the traditional family, Levada has, until now, avoided high-profile controversy.

But on Dec. 20, Levada sent a letter to Mayor Willie Brown and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors threatening to sue the city for violating the religious freedom of Catholic Charities.

The archbishop wants the city to exempt Catholic Charities from having to comply with the city's new domestic partnership law. The law, scheduled to take effect June 1, requires city contractors to grant health insurance benefits to gay and lesbian couples, as well as to married heterosexual couples.

In a front-page San Francisco Chronicle story Jan. 28, Levada said the ruling would violate the church's "religious and ethical tenets."

"While religiously affiliated organizations extend their services to any and all who are in need, these organizations must also be permitted to maintain their operations ... in a manner that is consistent with their religious principles," Levada wrote in his letter to the mayor. "This ensures respect for the constitutional guarantees of free speech and religious freedom."

As it stands now under the law, Catholic charities must comply because it contracts with the city to operate social programs, including Leland House, a new 45-bed housing project for people with HIV. Leland House was scheduled for a grand opening Feb. 6.

Levada has threatened to sue, but said a legal battle would divert city and church resources. Mayor Brown told two local radio stations that he hopes Levada will withdraw his request.

Levada wrote, "Should the regrettable situation arise where a legal challenge to the ordinance becomes necessary to maintain our sense of integrity, the limited resources of all concerned will unfortunately be diverted away from those whom we all wish to serve.

"I therefore ask you to support a simple, straightforward amendment that would provide an exemption for religiously affiliated organizations contracting with the city."

Leslie Katz, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, told Chronicle reporter Don Lattin that "Catholic Charities is a nonprofit charity, not a religious entity. Then they turn around and claim to be a religious entity" when the domestic partners issue arose. "They have to choose one or the other. They can't have it both ways."

Katz and fellow board member Tom Ammiano drafted the legislation, which passed with a 10-0 vote by the board. After receiving Levada's letter, Katz resigned in protest from a committee working on the grand-opening plans for Leland House.

Ammiano told the Chronicle that "no exceptions can be granted."

In a letter to Levada, Ammiano, who attended parochial schools, said: "I am well aware of the structure and philosophy of your beliefs. We simply disagree that these private convictions can ever justify discrimination in law or the provision of benefits authorized in law."

Derek Tynan-Connolly, a gay rights activist and former Jesuit seminarian who helped draft the legislation, said that the church is free to do as it wishes in "its church functions."

"But the situation changes when one of its agencies becomes a legal, nonprofit organization that accepts city funds."

The Board of Supervisors sent Levada a letter of protest Jan. 23 saying, "we did not participate (in the opening of Leland House) to promote discrimination. We were led to believe that the church did not impose its religious dogma on the work of Catholic Charities."

Catholic Charities serves 70,000 people in San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties. Its $13.6 million budget includes $5.6 million from city funds.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 1997