Catholic institutions face a quandary on the eve of the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts: The church opposes it, but the state's highest court ruled that couples are entitled to the rights and benefits of marriage. Officials from some Catholic institutions say they haven't decided whether
they'll grant spousal benefits to any gay and lesbian employees who get married. It's a particular problem for the Boston archdiocese, which was among the most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage when lawmakers debated a proposed constitutional amendment to ban the unions. The state's supreme judicial court ruled that gay marriage is legal, effective May 17. "We wouldn't recognize the marriage; we obviously don't think we should have to cover it," the Reverend Christopher Coyne said. "The question becomes, How does that play out in terms of law?"
Coyne, the archdiocese's spokesman, said that because the archdiocese self-insures some of its benefits, it may not have to answer to state laws governing benefits. Labor and employment lawyer Sharen Litwin said employer self-insured plans, as opposed to offering HMOs, are regulated by the federal government, which recognizes marriage as between a man and a woman. "If the archdiocese is self-funded for insurance, I don't think it would have to provide benefits," said Litwin, a partner at the Boston firm of Kotin, Crabtree, and Strong. The archdiocese runs 168 schools and a health care network that includes St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston. Boston College, one of the oldest Catholic universities in the nation, also has yet to make a decision on how to handle the issue. "We're in the process of reviewing that question right now," Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn said. "The supreme judicial court ruling has implied that there will not be exceptions granted to religious institutions, but there is still some ambiguity surrounding that issue. The consensus is, people will comply with the law."
And it's not just religious institutions. Boston University, which like Boston College does not provide domestic-partner benefits, said it also hasn't decided what to do. "What to do with the change in the law is under review," BU spokesman Kevin Carleton said. "It's not a situation that is treated the same under federal law." But barring a few exceptions, Litwin does not expect employers to be able to ignore the law. "They still have to adhere to the antidiscrimination laws," she said. Coyne said that church lawyers are planning just in case to make changes to the archdiocesan medical and pension plans. "That doesn't mean that there's been any decision made one way or the other," Coyne said. "We will have an answer to that after the 17th. I don't have an answer right now."