When this socially conscious city passed a domestic partnership law that extended employee benefits to gays, lesbians and unmarried couples, even the local Chamber of Commerce embraced the idea.
But now city officials find themselves embroiled in a battle with a fierce critic of the law: the Roman Catholic Church.
At issue is legislation requiring all companies that do business with the city to treat their married and unmarried employees equally, extending the same health, pension and other benefits to both spouses and domestic partners, gay or straight.
Mayor Willie Brown signed the law in November after the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved it. San Francisco now claims to be the first American municipality to guarantee equal benefits to domestic partners for all city contractors.
“In terms of us giving out our public dollars, we don’t want to give them to people to discriminate,” said Supervisor Michael Yaki. “It’s as simple as that.”
But the Catholic Church sees the issue very differently. The city has $5.5 million worth of contracts with Catholic Charities of San Francisco, a non-profit group run by the church. The charity provides a variety of services, including housing and counseling for AIDS patients. Under the law, the group’s employees would be entitled to benefits for their partners, including gay partners. To the Archdiocese of San Francisco, such a notion is anathema.
“It would be interpreted by some people if we complied with the law that we were equating domestic partnerships with traditional marriage, which we will not do,” said George Wesolek, a senior archdiocese staffer. “Any sexual activity outside of marriage is morally wrong.” He said the issue is one of “freedom of religion.”
Last month, the Archbishop of San Francisco, William Levada, asked Mayor Brown in a letter to exempt Catholic Charities from the law, which he said violated the “ethical tenets” of the church. Levada threatened to sue the city to get his way.
In an interview Wednesday, Brown was less than sympathetic. “I think the archbishop is totally wrong,” he said with characteristic bluntness.
Brown vowed to oppose any attempt to exclude Catholic Charities from the law.
He said the group contracts with the city not as a religious institution - that would violate the separation of church and state - but as a service provider. The law takes effect in July. News that the Catholic establishment was opposing the law prompted dozens of people to resign from a committee planning the opening of a new Catholic Charities housing project for AIDS patients.
Said Ron Hill, a self-described gay Catholic who had co-chaired the committee: “How am I supposed to stand up to people in my community and say, ‘Write a check to Catholic Charities,’ when you have an archbishop standing up and saying, ‘Your relationship is less than other people’s’?”