Catholic group challenges Portland, Maine, ordinance

BY Advocate.com Editors

February 11 2003 12:00 AM ET

The city of Portland, Maine, and Catholic Charities Maine are poised to clash in federal court over the latest expansion of domestic-partner benefits in Maine's largest city. City councillors amended a municipal ordinance in June to require agencies receiving certain federal funds through the city to offer their employees' domestic partners the same benefits that employees' spouses receive. Catholic Charities Maine says the ordinance is inconsistent with its religious teachings regarding premarital sex and homosexuality. "It's what I call designer discrimination," said John Kerry, the agency's chief executive officer. "They design a program that they know the Salvation Army, the Catholic Church, and maybe some Orthodox Jewish communities or maybe even some other Protestant religious groups would disagree with."

Portland mayor James Cloutier said councillors wanted to encourage expanded health care benefits while combating discrimination. "This is, in fact, discrimination," Cloutier said. "It's not the worst case of discrimination that ever existed, because it's subtle and it's a little bit indirect, but it's discrimination nonetheless."

The ordinance is the latest step in expanding benefits for domestic partners in Portland, the first city in Maine to approve a gay rights ordinance. Councillors already approved a domestic-partnership law that gives committed couples many of the same rights that husbands and wives enjoy. Unlike broader laws in some cities, Portland's new ordinance affects only agencies that receive Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grants, not the entire range of entities that do business with the city. The city disburses about $743,000 from those grants to 40 social service agencies and city programs each year, according to city manager Joseph Gray. The programs include soup kitchens, neighborhood associations, services for the homeless, and drug programs, he said.

Catholic Charities Maine and the Salvation Army were the only two agencies to protest the ordinance, both on religious grounds. After the city council rejected their requests for an exemption for religious groups, the Salvation Army forfeited a $60,000 grant for its senior citizens center and a meals-on-wheels program. Catholic Charities Maine would have received $88,310 for two child-care programs, homemaker services for the elderly, and mental health programs. Those programs employ about 125 people. It announced in December that it would sue rather than comply with a policy that runs contrary to its religious teachings. "There's a fundamental principle that we wish to adhere to our ethical and religious directive," Kerry said. "But also from a public policy point of view, we do not think the state has a right to dictate...to a private religious group the terms of a health care policy but certainly the values by which a religiously motivated institution operates."

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