Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Diocesan Legal Services at Odds with Gay Marriage

In certain circumstances gay couples are denied legal assistance from the Catholic legal services and referred to outside legal resources despite the fact that the program receives federal dollars and that has some attorneys and immigrants up in arms.

The Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services, Inc is the largest provider of free or low-cost immigration services in the borderland and is now struggling with a major social issue.

The DMRS is affiliated with the Catholic Church, specifically with the Diocese of El Paso. The DMRS operates through the financial support of the diocese, non-profits, and grants from state and federal entities.

According to the Executive Director Melissa Lopez, an attorney who specializes in immigration law, the organization's board has not made an official policy regarding the provision of legal services to gay couples who would otherwise qualify for legal assistance from the organization. The organization therefore does not provide those services to gay couples and instead refers them to other legal resources in the community.

In essence their lack of a definitive policy on this issue serves as a defacto policy against providing legal services and assistance to gay couples. The board that oversees the DMRS is made up of the Bishop of El Paso, priests, an attorney, and prominent members of the community including the spouse of a city representative.

DMRS provides assistance and services across a range of legal issues and are broken into units including residency, citizenship, removal defense, crime victims, refugee resettlement, religious worker, and legal orientation. In a border community with a shortage on community and legal resources DMRS obviously provides a much-needed service to the community.

But because the organization receives federal funding, which Lopez says makes up a significant portion of their overall operating budget, their legal position may be compromised. Organizations receiving federal funding are prohibited from discriminating against members of a protected class.

Based on my conversation with the Communications Director for the Diocese of El Paso Elizabeth O'Hara, the Church seems to have a very nuanced position on sexual orientation and the provision of legal services. "..if you are a gay individual and you are to be seeking help from DMRS, DMRS will help you. You are never really asked about your sexual orientation. The only time that that comes up is...if in the context of an interview at DRMS it appears that the couple is a same sex couple, the Church's position on that has been that they are not recognizing civil provide services to a gay couple would then be an endorsement of something the Church does not support."

DMRS does not require someone to be Catholic to receive services and if an immigrant sought assistance from the organization that was an unwed mother or a divorcee, situations that are also opposed by the Catholic Church, they would not be turned away.

The Catholic Church isn't obligated to change their recognition of marriage. But the Church can't have it both ways either. They can't benefit from public funds and discriminate against gay couples.

The solution for the board that governs DMRS is simple. They can either choose to not take federal funding and they are choose to provide or deny services to whomever they wish, or they can provide services to all regardless of sexual orientation.

DMRS provides a valuable service to the community and has helped numerous numbers of immigrants and their families. The recent decision by the Supreme Court has obviously caused a lot a necessary changes and as a result this is an issue the Church will have to deal with.

However this isn't an issue that happened just recently following the SCOTUS decision. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has been a part of this discussion for a couple of years now so the federal government has recognized gay marriage for quite some time.

The challenges for DMRS on this issue are plenty. They may not be in compliance with federal rules regarding the prohibition of discrimination, they could possibly be sued, and federal funding makes up a significant portion of their operating budget. The reality is that the Diocese of El Paso doesn't fund DMRS to a very significant degree which is likely what has prompted the group to have to pursue public dollars to be able to leverage much-needed legal resources to the community.


Anonymous said...

Sexuality isn't a protected class when it comes to the federal government. They are only race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, pregnancy, citizenship, familial status, disability status, veteran status or genetic information.

Individual states and local governments can enact laws that protect other classes--Texas isn't one of those states.

Anonymous said...

How often are Gay people turned away to begin with? Is this even a statistically relevant issue? Are you wanting them to make a stand and lose funding so that even more people have less access to legal services?

V Garcia said...

This situation IS a relevant issue. It IS impacting real lives, right here in El Paso...

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's so much that they're finding out someone is in a gay marriage and they're turning them away. There are situations where an undocumented immigrant can gain residency based on his/her spouse's citizenship. I believe that those are the cases DMRS is referring to other attorneys... situations where an individual can possibly gain residency based on his/her same-sex spouse's citizenship. While this certainly may still create problems with federal funding, I do think it portrays the situation in a slightly different light than the way Ms. O'Hare's comment portrays it.

Regardless of the legal ramifications and opinions regarding whether this practice is right or wrong, I do think it's commendable of DMRS that they are, at least, making referrals to other attorneys, as opposed to simply saying, "Sorry, we can't help you. Bye."