BY CHRIS COOK IN SAN FRANCISCO
THE ARCHBISHOP of San Francisco has threatened to sue the city for violating the religious freedom of its charity organisation in a row over a law governing domestic partnerships.
The clash between Church and State is one of the most serious faced by a number of cities in the United States which are introducing domestic partnership legislation.
The new law, which comes into force in June, requires city contractors to grant spousal benefits such as health insurance to gay and lesbian couples if they already give them to married heterosexuals.
The charity organisation is affected because it contracts with the city to run social programmes to help the poor, the homeless and people with AIDS. The dispute has put in jeopardy $5.6 million in contracts.
Taking a stand against the law, which is similar to those being enacted by several other American cities, Archbishop William Levada warned that recognising domestic partnerships would violate the Church's religious and ethical tenets. In a letter to the city's Board of Supervisors he asked for an exemption for the charity organisation, Catholic Charities.
But Catholic Charities has the status of a non-profit charity rather than a religious entity, and city officials believe it should not be allowed to spend city money if the agency does not provide city-mandated domestic partner benefits to its employees. Their position is that it must meet its obligations under the law.
In the Board's reply to the Archbishop, Supervisor Tom Ammiano wrote: "I am well aware of the structure and philosophy of your beliefs. We simply disagree that these private convictions can ever justify discrimination in law".
But a settlement could yet come without recourse to the courts.
A meeting late last week between Archbishop Lavada and the Mayor of San Francisco, Willy Brown, produced what Mr Ammiano called "a very positive step towards reconciliation". By rewording the ordinance reference to "domestic partners" has been removed, and benefits extended instead to any designated member of an employee's household.
The tentative proposal has yet to be approved, but it would satisfy the city's desire to end discrimination in the workplace, while meeting the Church's objection to recognising a law which flies in the face of its beliefs.
San Franscisco has always been popular among the homosexual community, and has been the centre of many gay rights struggles in the past.
This week's dispute is just the lastest in a series of clashes between the Church and the city's authorities.