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Wary of limits on aiding gay people, group returns Catholic grant

A Chelsea community organization has returned a $40,000 grant from the Roman Catholic Church out of concern that the money could come with too many restrictions against helping gay people and working with organizations supporting gay rights.

A spokeswoman for Catholic bishops said the Chelsea group “took appropriate steps under the circumstances.”

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Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, said she and her colleagues have long recognized that grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the antipoverty arm of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, come with the expectation that recipients not promote activities that contradict Catholic teachings on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

This, she said, had never been an issue for the collaborative, which received grants for its public housing work from the Catholic Campaign from 2002 to 2007. Last year, the collaborative’s Chelsea Latino Immigrant Committee, which advocates for immigrant workers, received a grant.

But Vega said she and colleagues were taken aback in March when a local representative of the Catholicn Campaign came for a site visit, speaking at length to the group about the need to avoid work that conflicted with Catholic teachings, including activities that might “support the gay lifestyle.”

In a follow-up meeting with staff, according to Vega, the representative suggested the Chelsea group should avoid work involving the gay community.

The episode, Vega said, upset many of the staff and community activists present.

Two weeks earlier, Vega had received an award from Mass­Equality, the gay rights organization, for speaking out on behalf of a transgender woman badly beaten outside a Chelsea bar. She feared that sort of advocacy could be considered unacceptable by the church.

So the Chelsea Collaborative informed the Catholic Campaign it would return the grant and withdraw its application for another next year.

Randy Keesler, a grants specialist at the Catholic Campaign, told Vega in an e-mail that there had been a miscommunication and lamented that, given the groups’ longstanding relationship, she had not come to him with her concerns first. The Chelsea Collaborative provided a copy of the e-mail to the Globe.

“We have relationships and work in partnership with many organizations at the national level which differ from the Catholic church’s teaching” on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues, Keesler wrote.

Grant recipients cannot support a gay pride march, Keesler wrote, but “were gay people being denied housing, simply because of their sexual orientation, or were they bullied in the schools because of their sexual orientation, organizing to stop this injustice would be supported by church teachings.”

Keesler and Ralph McCloud, director of the Catholic Campaign, were out of the office Wednesday. But Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the US bishops, said the church appreciated the Chelsea Collaborative’s “respectful and honest approach to their concerns.”

In e-mails, phone calls, and an in-person meeting, according to Vega, the Chelsea Collaborative raised additional questions about other hypothetical situations: Could the organization provide health benefits for an employee’s same-sex spouse? Could it organize campaigns advocating for workers discriminated against because of their sexual identity or orientation?

Ultimately, Vega said, the Catholic Campaign did not answer the questions to the collaborative’s satisfaction. At one point, she said, the Catholic Campaign suggested that specific questions about thorny issues — for example, about whether it would be acceptable to hold a rally in support of the victimized transgender woman — could be posed to local church authorities first.

The group’s work is about community empowerment, Vega said, and the Catholic Campaign “is telling us that in order for us to do a campaign against the assault of a transgender woman we need to check with the archdiocese or consult a local priest. That didn’t sit well.”

Vega said she is now scrambling to find other sources of income because few organizations underwrite the kind of work the Latino Immigrant Committee does. Recently, for example, the committee has been fighting for workers at a local bakery paid below the minimum wage. The grant represents 82 percent of the committee’s funding and helps pay for a staff member to assist the committee’s community activists, Vega said. The Chelsea Collaborative’s annual budget is $1.4 million, she said.

Liberal Catholics say the episode provides further evidence the church is tightening the reins on antipoverty groups it funds. “The influence of Catholic conservatives has moved bishops from being a prophetic voice on behalf of economic justice to a more conservative agenda focused on issues of sexual identity,” said James Salt, executive director of Catholics United, a liberal group.

Conservatives say restrictions on work conflicting with church doctrine have not been enforced strictly enough.

Michael Hichborn, director of Defend the Faith at the American Life League, said there was “plenty of work to be done” in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless. “To claim you have to be able to work with organizations that are promoting abortion and homosexuality in order to do those things is ridiculous,” he said.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.
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