Catholic Group to Challenge Maine Domestic-Partner Benefit Law

December 6, 2002 ( - Catholic Charities Maine is taking the city of Portland to court over a requirement to offer domestic partner benefits to its employees.

Portland officials have refused to give Catholic Charities Maine $87,000 in federal housing and community development grants because the city’s ordinance requires agencies receiving those funds to offer domestic partners the same benefits available to heterosexual spouses, the newspaper said.

According to a Portland (Maine) Press Herald report, the social service agency contends that obeying the city ordinance would force the group to violate Roman Catholic doctrine against homosexuality, cohabitation by unmarried couples, and premarital sex.

Portland this year awarded $3.3 million in federal grants to more than 25 social-service agencies. Only Catholic Charities Maine and the Salvation Army would not agree to offer domestic-partner benefits. The Salvation Army opted to forgo a $60,000 grant for a meals-on-wheels program rather than violate its religious principles.

Catholic Charities Maine intends to forfeit the money, which was earmarked for counseling and child-care programs, and hopes it can be raised elsewhere so the programs will not be substantially affected.  John Kerry, chief executive officer, told the Press Herald that agency’s board of directors does not want to create a perception that the church condones sexual activity, whether homosexual or heterosexual, outside of marriage.

Kerry said the lawsuit would allege that the city of Portland improperly kept back public funds over the issue.

Legal Precedent from San Francisco

Gene Libby, attorney for Catholic Charities Maine, said the city’s domestic-partner ordinance is at odds with long-standing federal laws relating to employee benefits, equal rights and religious freedom.  The most relevant legal precedent, Libby said, is a case involving the city of  San Francisco , which enacted a law similar to Portland’s in 1996, though it applied to all entities that contract to do work for the city.

In that case, the Air Transport Association of America successfully challenged San Francisco’s domestic-partner ordinance, citing ERISA.  “The court issued a ruling which clearly stated the city does not have authority to mess around with employee health benefits,” Libby told the newspaper. “The city of Portland does not have jurisdiction over these benefits.”  

ERISA does allow regulation of insurance providers, which is why the Maine Legislature last year was able to require insurance companies to begin offering domestic-partner benefits.

Catholic Charities Maine employs 650 people and provides social services in 200 municipalities across the state. It had a budget last year of $23.5 million.