With Catholic Charities facing allegations of discrimination from gay-rights advocates in Massachusetts, Illinois, and Washington, D.C., Palo Alto officials found themselves debating on Tuesday night whether the organization's local chapter should continue to draw grant funding from the city.
On Tuesday night, April 16, the City Council's Finance Committee decided that it should, despite an impassioned argument from a member of the city's Human Relations Commission. If the council approves the committee's decision in May, Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County will receive a $5,000 grant to provide ombudsman services to seniors at local assisted-living facilities.
The debate over religion and discrimination injected some controversy into what is usually a dry and straight-forward process to allocate more than $500,000 as part of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program. The program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, focuses on programs that deliver housing, counseling and other social services to residents, particularly those of low and moderate income.
As part of a staff proposal that the Finance Committee approved Tuesday night, Catholic Charities would receive $5,000, the bare minimum under the CBDG process and far less than most of the other agencies set to receive funding under the current two-year cycle. The Downtown Streets Team Inc., a nonprofit that offers jobs and training to the homeless, is set to receive $248,753, far more than any other organization, while InnVision Shelter Network, which runs the Opportunity Center, would receive $76,662.
But the smallest grant stirred Human Relations Commissioner Claude Ezran to call for the city to stop funding Catholic Charities, citing the parent organizations's controversial practices elsewhere in the country. He cited the decisions of the organization's Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts chapters not to offer adoption services to same-sex couples and the 2011 lawsuit filed against Catholic Charities by the ACLU and the State of Illinois, which accused the organization of discriminating against gay couples.
Ezran, who was one of two Human Relations Commission members to recommend cutting funding for the local chapter, said he based his recommendation of his view of the organization as one that "discriminates against gays, lesbians and unmarried heterosexual couples."
"Should you fund this local organization when it has not spoken out publicly against the discrimination policies of its parent and sibling organizations?" Ezran asked the committee.
He argued that the city should end its association with the nonprofit and cited Palo Alto's recent decision to take a formal stance against Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
"Hopefully, the city that proudly flies the rainbow flag would follow on this symbolic action with a substantive one -- decidedly turning down a funding request from Catholic Charities," Ezran said.
But his comments failed to gain traction on the committee, which voted unanimously to fund the organization. After hearing testimony from Catholic Charities officials and members of other nonprofits that have dealt with the organization, council members concluded that the local chapter provides an important, much-needed service and that there is no evidence of it ever having been involved in discrimination. While the city keeps a file of discrimination complaints from nonprofits that receive local grants, it has not received any such complaints about Catholic Charities.
To be eligible for the grant funding, each agency under consideration has to follow strict federal guidelines prohibiting discrimination. By all reports, the local chapter of Catholic Charities has done that and has not violated any statutes prohibiting discrimination.
To underscore that fact, Joseph Rodrigues, the long-term care ombudsman from the state's Department of Aging, submitted a letter to Palo Alto's Finance Committee urging the committee to grant funding to Catholic Charities. Rodrigues, whose office oversees the local ombudsman programs, noted in his letter that local representatives "must place any personal or corporate bias aside in order to advocate for a resident whose choices and desires may conflict with the personal or corporate positions of the Ombudsman representative or entity hosting the local Program.
"In the close to 11 years that I have been the California State Long-Term Care Ombudsman, I have never received a complaint of discrimination or unfair treatment of residents of a long-term care facilities by employees or volunteers associated with the local Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program," Rodrigues wrote in the April 15 letter.
Ezran's position was also a minority one on his own commission, which voted 3-2 to support the grant request (former Commissioner Sunita Verma joined Ezran). Chair Jill O'Nan was one of several commissioners to argue at a Feb. 28 meeting of the commission that the focus should be on the organization's local work rather than on the broader, national issues.
The Finance Committee reached a similar conclusion, with Chair Pat Burt admonishing Ezran for expressing his own opinion rather than that of the commission that he was charged with representing at the Tuesday night hearing. Given the nonprofit's strong service record and no evidence or discrimination, its request should be funded, Burt said.
Councilman Greg Schmid agreed and said there is a "distinction between a religious organization and delivery of services in our local area."
"I think given the fact there is no evidence of discrimination in our local community, I certainly cannot discriminate against one of the organizations providing services," Schmid said.
Wanda Hale, program manager of the Catholic Charity of the Santa Clara County's ombudsman program, emphasized that her organization is committed to supporting all residents who need assistance. The organization provides ombudsman services to about 250 Palo Alto residents annually.
Hale cited one case in which she represented a gay man with AIDS who was threatened of being evicted from his facility. In another case, Hale said, she provided training to staff members at a facility in which two lesbian residents felt they were being discriminated against.
"I've actually gone out and advocated for gay residents who have been discriminated against in their facilities," Hale said.
Staff from the Community Services Department concurred with the three HRC members who felt the organization should continue to get funding. In a report, staff cited a concern "that the manner in which the decision was made regarding Catholic Charities does not recognize the substantial merit of the program and incorrectly emphasizes the religious affiliation of the organization, which could be construed as a denial of equal access to federal funding."
The four members of the Finance Committee agreed, with Marc Berman noting the city's growing senior population and the deep need for the type of services Catholic Charities is providing. Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd voiced a similar sentiment.
"It's been my understanding that Catholic Charities works at a very basic level of human need," Shepherd said. "The people who are here tonight and the people who are out in the field are doing things that (most) people will never do, or will never want to do."