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John Mattras

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U.S. Bishops, Religious Liberty and Gay Americans' Tax Dollars

Posted: 11/28/11 06:24 PM ET

The new buzz-phrase making the rounds of U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference in Baltimore last week was "Religious Liberty." It is not hard to imagine some behind-the-scenes PR wizard delivering the bad news to the bishops -- outright opposition to marriage equality is a losing proposition. But characterize yourselves as the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of discrimination and maybe you have a shot at stalling what you cannot stop outright.

The vast Catholic social service network encompasses schools from grammar schools to top-ranking universities, private hospital networks, health and family services and numerous anti-poverty initiatives, among other well-intentioned initiatives. The bishops would have us believe it is an infringement on church's "religious liberty" to freely discriminate while providing these services with taxpayer dollars. Whether denying spousal benefits to spouses of gay employees or refusing to place children in need of homes with gay couples, the bishops argue "religious liberty" entitles them to use taxpayer dollars for the benefit only of those taxpayers of whose lives the church approves.

Given the bishops' simultaneous opposition to health-care overhaul on the grounds that the church should not be compelled to expend resources on health plans that pay for birth control and abortion, it is ironic that they would so callously overlook the plight of gay Americans whose tax dollars they would accept while denying those same individuals the full benefit of their services.

It is time for the bishops to own up to the obvious reality that denying services to a class of individuals is, in fact, discrimination. Their new website to promote the exclusion from marriage of same-gender couples (marriageuniqueforareason.org) goes to great lengths to underscore the church's adherence to what it believes are the teachings of Jesus Christ in regards to marriage. The site emphasizes that fidelity to this conviction, and not discrimination against gays, is its purpose for denying spousal benefits to spouses of gay employees and adoption services to gays and gay couples.

At best, this attempted rationalization does nothing more than make a case for what they view as justified discrimination. In reality, there are no valid reasons for the government to bend to church teaching when the church is operating as an agent of the state (i.e., engaging in activities partly or wholly funded by taxpayer dollars). If the church wants to discriminate in providing services to the public, it should do so with its own money (admittedly including government revenues that would otherwise be collected on the money donated to the church), and not with the tax dollars of those it wishes to discriminate against or those who find their rationale for discrimination odious.

Maybe it is time for the U.S. Bishops to offer a grand bargain. The church will forego taxpayer funds to provide services it is unwilling to make available to all citizens in exchange for a mechanism to ensure that church dollars will not be used to provide abortions and contraceptives. In other words, do unto others what you would have others do unto you.