Catholic Group Takes Domestic Partner Benefits Battle to Court

March 3, 2003 ( - Catholic Charities Maine has filed a lawsuit accusing the city of Portland of religious discrimination, by withholding public funds from the organization for not providing employee domestic partner benefits.

Catholic Charities has long threatened the suit in a dispute over a city ordinance requiring agencies receiving federal housing and community development money to offer domestic partners the same benefits as spouses, according to the Portland Press Herald. The organization also claims in the lawsuit that ERISA preempts the city from enforcing the domestic partner law.

Catholic Charities maintains that to comply with the two-year-old ordinance would violate Roman Catholic doctrine opposing homosexual behavior, cohabitation by unmarried couples, and premarital sex. The nonprofit organization is the social-service arm of the Roman Catholic Church.

City officials on Friday rejected the claims made in the lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Portland. Mayor James Cloutier said the ordinance is designed to make sure that agencies that receive public funds treat their employees equally. “You cannot spend public monies in a way that discriminates against some of the people that pay the money,” Cloutier told the newspaper.

“Patently Unfair”

But John Kerry, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities, called the ordinance “patently unfair” because it singles out a small group of organizations that includes religious ones. Kerry claims the ordinance was passed to “promote a political agenda.”   Because Catholic Charities won’t agree to offer domestic partner benefits, the city refused to give it $87,000 in federal grant money this year. The organization’s request for $88,000 for the fiscal year starting July 1 is also expected to be turned down.

Catholic Charities is based in Falmouth and has 600 full- and part-time employees, more than one-third of whom work in Portland. It serves about 18,000 people statewide, and has a $24-million annual budget, of which only 5% is funded by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.