WASHINGTON — The fight over a proposed same-sex marriage law here heated up this week as the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington said that if the law passed, the church would cut its social service programs that help residents with adoption, homelessness and health care.
Under the bill, which has the mayor’s support and is expected to pass next month, religious organizations would not be required to perform same-sex weddings or make space available for them.
But officials from the archdiocese said they feared the law might require them to extend employee benefits to same-sex married couples. As a result, they said, the archdiocese would have to abandon its contracts with the city if the law passed.
The church’s social services arm, known as Catholic Charities, serves 68,000 local residents, including about a third of the city’s homeless people, who go to city-owned shelters managed by the church, city officials said.
The threat is not the first time a religion-based provider of social services has said it would stop providing services in response to a same-sex marriage law, gay rights advocates say.
In 2006, Boston’s archbishop, Sean P. O’Malley, said that Catholic Charities there would stop its adoption-related work rather than comply with a state law requiring that gay men and lesbians be allowed to adopt children.
On Wednesday, the Washington Archdiocese said it had no choice.
“Religious organizations and individuals are at risk of legal action for refusing to promote and support same-sex marriages in a host of settings where it would compromise their religious beliefs,” Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said in a statement. “This includes employee benefits, adoption services and even the use of a church hall for non-wedding events for same-sex married couples.”
Ms. Gibbs added that religious organizations like Catholic Charities could be denied licenses or certification by the government, denied the right to offer adoption and foster care services, or could no longer partner with the city to provide social services.
In the last three years, Catholic Charities has received more than $8.2 million in city contracts, according to the City Council.
“This is a decision that the archdiocese will make on its own, and the city will be prepared to respond accordingly,” said Councilman David A. Catania, the sponsor of the bill.
Councilman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, said the city would not, based on threats, broaden the exemptions the law offers to religious groups.
“Allowing individual exemptions opens the door for anyone to discriminate based on assertions of religious principle,” Mr. Mendelson said. “Let’s not forget that during the civil rights era, many claimed separation of the races was ordained by God.”
Some religious groups in Washington echoed Mr. Mendelson’s sentiment.
“The Catholic Church hierarchy is at a crossroads,” said the Rev. Dennis W. Wiley, the co-chairman of Clergy United for Marriage Equality and the pastor of Covenant Baptist Church. “They must decide whether they are in the charity business for charity’s sake, or if imposing their will on the D.C. City Council and the citizens of the district is their primary interest.”
But in a letter sent this week to Mr. Mendelson, Jane G. Belford, the chancellor of the archdiocese, said the debate over the proposed legislation must be seen in the context of balancing competing interests, and, specifically between “the interest of the homosexual community to be able to marry freely and the interests of the religious community to be able to practice religion freely.”