Now You’ve Done It: Catholics Sue S.F.

San Francisco’s supervisors are prolific resolution makers. And their symbolic stances on some issues, like the war in Iraq, have attracted criticism — particularly from the other side of the ideological spectrum. But rarely do the supes have to endure more than verbal jabs.

One resolution they passed in March, though, could hit the city’s purse. An offended Catholic-rights group has upped the ante with a federal lawsuit, in which the plaintiffs — two local residents as well as the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which claims 6,000 San Francisco members — want a judge to declare that one of the city’s proclamations violated the federal Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

“This is not something where an apology would suffice, in this situation. Not that they’re offering one,” said Kiera McCaffrey, director of communications for the Catholic League.

The two-page resolution in question arose after a cardinal at the Vatican told the San Francisco archdiocese that children shouldn’t be placed for adoption in gay households, something a local charitable arm of the church here had occasionally done. The city’s 11 supervisors passed a resolution urging the Vatican to allow such adoptions at Catholic Charities, encouraging the local archbishop to “defy all discriminatory directives” from the Vatican, and calling statements that had been made by the cardinal and the Vatican “unacceptable to the citizenry of San Francisco,” as well as hateful, discriminatory, insulting, callous, insensitive and ignorant.

While the supervisors could doubtless find plenty of constituents who agree with them in their historically gay-friendly city, the lawyers who are suing them say local officials have stepped over the line by demonstrating official disapproval of a religion, and by meddling in the Catholic Church’s internal affairs. The Thomas More Law Center, which represents the plaintiffs, wants a permanent injunction to stop city officials from using resolutions to criticize religious beliefs or practices.

“This is the first time that we have witnessed such an open public condemnation of a particular religious faith, by a unanimous board,” said Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Michigan-based law center, which has a stated mission of defending the religious freedom of Christian people. “It’s almost as if the city and county of San Francisco put up signs along its borders saying faithful Catholics aren’t welcome.”

The suit only mentions nominal damages — Thompson says his clients will ask for one dollar. But the case could still cost the city, since the plaintiffs are also seeking attorneys’ fees and costs.

It might be interesting to see whether the city’s defense lawyers try to make anything in court of the Vatican’s dual role as the seat of the Catholic Church and as an independent state. Interestingly, the resolution never uses the word church (though it does refer once to Catholic agencies); it refers to the Vatican as “a foreign country.”

But we’ll have to wait and see. As is typical at this stage in a suit, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office declined to comment, saying it would be premature to do so because he did not think the office had been served with the complaint. He did say, though, that the city’s resolutions hardly ever wind up in court. “A resolution is an expression of an opinion, so it’s rare to see that provoke litigation.”

Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who sponsored the resolution, asserts that "most of the Catholics in San Francisco are very supportive of same-sex adoption." Calling the litigation a "nuisance suit," he contends that the supervisors’ vote was pretty benign. "We ask the cardinal to reconsider his position on Catholic Charities not implementing same-sex adoptions, so we can continue to fund [the charity]." 

Pam Smith

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3 Responses to “Now You’ve Done It: Catholics Sue S.F.”

  1. Elohim Says:

    Let me just say that this is a great example of a well written post. Kudos to Pam. I was drawn here because of the religious implications but regardless this is solid writing, not like my fragmented, death to punctuation, sprawling posts. I’m usually not much of a commenter, more the observing type, but this was solid, deserves a nod. Thanks Pam.

  2. Elohim Says:

    Forgetful me, might as well add my two cents to the situation since I’m here. Obviously this isn’t directed at anyone in particular, more a free floating thought which would be, I’m of the opinion that gay families know how to love too. Suppose a religious institution can do what it wants just wish they’d shake lose a little dogma.

  3. FAbian O. Fragiao Says:

    I’ve lived and worked in SF for over 9 years. I now live in Orange county,Ca. It’s about time that the Board of Supervisors stop being the hammer for the gay activists. They seem to represent only one segment of the community. They miscalculated the strength of the other communities in San Francisco, that is, the Catholics/Other Christians, Asian-Americas and the Hispanics. They should do their job and stop being afraid of the Gay coalition.

    A member of the Catholic League

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