The City of Palo Alto, California, a suburb of San Francisco, is facing a question that many other municipalities might soon be facing: should it fund a Catholic organization that is part of a network that includes some organizations who have discriminated against gay and lesbian people?
The Palo Alto City Council Finance Committee has provisionally answered “yes” to that question, as they recently approved a $5,000 grant to the local Catholic Charities organization to provide ombudsman services to seniors who are in assisted-living facilities. One of two of the city’s human rights commissioners who are against the funding spoke at the meeting. (The five-member commission was split 3-2 in favor of funding the group.) The decision to fund is now up to the full City Council.
This case is interesting because it reverses what we’ve come to expect as the usual process in such cases. In the past, Catholic Charities groups have withdrawn services so as not to comply with LGBT equality protections. In this case, a decision to de-fund would present a pre-emptive step on the part of the city.
“The debate over religion and discrimination injected some controversy into what is usually a dry and straight-forward process to allocate more than $500,000 as part of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program. The program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, focuses on programs that deliver housing, counseling and other social services to residents, particularly those of low and moderate income.
“As part of a staff proposal that the Finance Committee approved Tuesday night, Catholic Charities would receive $5,000, the bare minimum under the CBDG process and far less than most of the other agencies set to receive funding under the current two-year cycle. The Downtown Streets Team Inc., a nonprofit that offers jobs and training to the homeless, is set to receive $248,753, far more than any other organization, while InnVision Shelter Network, which runs the Opportunity Center, would receive $76,662.
“But the smallest grant stirred Human Relations Commissioner Claude Ezran to call for the city to stop funding Catholic Charities, citing the parent organizations’s controversial practices elsewhere in the country. He cited the decisions of the organization’s Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts chapters not to offer adoption services to same-sex couples and the 2011 lawsuit filed against Catholic Charities by the ACLU and the State of Illinois, which accused the organization of discriminating against gay couples.
“Ezran, who was one of two Human Relations Commission members to recommend cutting funding for the local chapter, said he based his recommendation of his view of the organization as one that ‘discriminates against gays, lesbians and unmarried heterosexual couples.’ ”
” ‘Should you fund this local organization when it has not spoken out publicly against the discrimination policies of its parent and sibling organizations?’ Ezran asked the committee.
“He argued that the city should end its association with the nonprofit and cited Palo Alto’s recent decision to take a formal stance against Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
” ‘Hopefully, the city that proudly flies the rainbow flag would follow on this symbolic action with a substantive one — decidedly turning down a funding request from Catholic Charities,’ Ezran said.
The case is more complicated than a simple question of good guys vs. bad guys. As the news report describes, Santa Clara County Catholic Charities has a good record concerning lesbian and gay issues:
“Councilman Greg Schmid agreed and said there is a ‘distinction between a religious organization and delivery of services in our local area.’
” ‘I think given the fact there is no evidence of discrimination in our local community, I certainly cannot discriminate against one of the organizations providing services,’ Schmid said.
“Wanda Hale, program manager of the Catholic Charity of the Santa Clara County’s ombudsman program, emphasized that her organization is committed to supporting all residents who need assistance. The organization provides ombudsman services to about 250 Palo Alto residents annually.
“Hale cited one case in which she represented a gay man with AIDS who was threatened of being evicted from his facility. In another case, Hale said, she provided training to staff members at a facility in which two lesbian residents felt they were being discriminated against.
” ‘I’ve actually gone out and advocated for gay residents who have been discriminated against in their facilities,’ Hale said.”
Staff from the Community Services Department concurred with the three HRC members who felt the organization should continue to get funding. In a report, staff cited a concern “that the manner in which the decision was made regarding Catholic Charities does not recognize the substantial merit of the program and incorrectly emphasizes the religious affiliation of the organization, which could be construed as a denial of equal access to federal funding.”
Judging the fairness of such a decision is a tough call. While I certainly do not propose supporting an organization which has discriminatory policies, I also think it would be wrong to pre-judge such an organization based on the record of some of its sister-components. If LGBT people’s experience teaches us anything, it is that we should judge people by their actions, not by their labels or with whom they associate.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry