Religious groups question San Francisco’s anti-discrimination laws

Tuesday, July 14, 1998

San Francisco officials and two nonprofit religious organizations have become entangled in a dispute over the city’s authority to enforce anti-discrimination laws.

Catholic Charities, which contracts with the city to operate an array of social service programs, such as adoption and HIV clinical services, and the Salvation Army, which also receives government money to feed and shelter the city’s homeless, have come under scrutiny by the city’s Human Rights Commission and Board of Supervisors for possible violations of the city’s anti-discrimination laws.

A task force for the commission issued a report in 1996 stating, in part, that: “Teachings and interpretations of scriptures by some religious leaders that are negative regarding the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities have contributed historically and continue to form the rationale for some people to commit discrimination and violence against all communities.”

The city commission was created to enforce the “Nondiscrimination in Contracts” ordinance, which requires companies providing social services not to discriminate “against specified groups for specified reasons.” Officials for Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army have questioned the city’s efforts to make sure the groups don’t discriminate against gay people in hiring and that they provide medical benefits for gay employees and their partners.

In efforts to make sure religious nonprofits do not discriminate on religious grounds, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown signed into law this month an ordinance requiring the groups to hold public meetings about their operations. The new law will require groups such as Catholic Charities to conduct two public meetings a year at which citizens can question the charities’ operations.

Last month the Salvation Army announced it would forgo $3.5 million in city contracts rather than comply with the anti-discrimination law that requires domestic partner benefits for gay employees, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Officials for the nonprofit group cited passages from the Bible allegedly condemning gay people to eternal damnation as reason for discontinuing its partnership with the city.

Larry Brinkin, coordinator for the Human Rights Commission, said he was saddened by the group’s decision.

“To pick out one group of people mentioned negatively in the Bible as a reason for canceling its use of city money is something I don’t understand,” Brinkin told “I believe the city has done everything it can to work with the Salvation Army to comply with the anti-discrimination laws. But we cannot have separate rules for city contractors because of their religious leanings.”

Officials for Catholic Charities have also criticized the city’s anti-discrimination laws as governmental attempts to control and influence the church’s internal operations and religious mission.

San Francisco Archbishop William Levada accused city officials of creating “an agenda that wants to exclude religious activity from the city.”

Maurice Healy, director of communications for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, told that city officials were headed in the opposite direction of national lawmakers on welfare reform.

Healy pointed to attempts by congressional leaders such as Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., to make sure religious groups can provide social services in partnership with government agencies without sacrificing their religious missions. In May, Ashcroft introduced the Charitable Choice Expansion Act of 1998, which would bar any government agency from “impairing the religious character” of nonprofits providing social service programs with government money.

“As the nation goes through the process of welfare reform, we should have laws that respect the integrity and unique natures of nonprofits,” Healy said. “Ashcroft sees the value in many of these programs and does not believe nonprofits should be thrown out simply because they have religious views. It appears San Francisco is moving in the opposite direction — away from creating partnership, to putting more burdens on nonprofits.”

Healy said that Catholic Charities was inspired by a religious mandate to “help those in need.” He said the group’s social services programs are “open to each and every one and unconditionally.”

Brinkin called Ashcroft’s proposal “outrageous” and potentially a church-state separation problem.

“The city does not want to infringe on the Catholic Church’s religious freedom,” Brinkin said. “But when any institution enters into a contractual relationship with the government, [it] must abide by the city’s laws. I believe it would be unconstitutional for different rules to be created for religious people. We must treat all city contractors the same.”

Civil rights organizations, including the D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, have also questioned the constitutionality of Ashcroft’s proposal.

Rob Boston, assistant communications director for the group, said the bill contained “no safeguards against proselytization” by the religious groups providing social service programs. Ashcroft’s bill is pending in the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.

Brinkin predicted that despite Catholic Charities’ criticisms of the anti-discrimination laws, it would continue to operate social service programs with the city.

“I really think our relationship with Catholic Charities will continue,” he said. “I think an important concept in this situation is that city contractors are an extension of city government and in essence are taking the place of city workers. I think the public has the right to information about those contractors.”

Healy said Catholic Charities will continue to work with the city but hopes the laws will be applied so that they do no not interfere with the group’s operations.

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