Guess Who's Complaining About Foreign Meddling in American Life:

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has issued this nonbinding resolution:

Resolution urging Cardinal William Levada, in his capacity has head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican, to withdraw his discriminatory and defamatory directive that Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Francisco stop placing children in need of adoption with homosexual households.

WHEREAS, It is a insult to all San Franciscans when a foreign country, like the Vatican, meddles with and attempts to negatively influence this great City's existing and established customs and traditions such as the right of same-sex couples to adopt and care for children in need; and

WHEREAS, The statements of Cardinal Levada and the Vatican that "Catholic agencies should not place children for adoption in homosexual households," and "Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children" are absolutely unacceptable to the citizenry of San Francisco; and,

WHEREAS, Such hateful and discriminatory rhetoric is both insulting and callous, and shows a level of insensitivity and ignorance which has seldom been encountered by this Board of Supervisors; and

WHEREAS, Same sex couples are just as qualified to be parents as are heterosexual couples; and

WHEREAS, Cardinal Levada is a decidedly unqualified representative of his former home city, and of the people of San Francisco and the values they hold dear; and

WHEREAS, The Board of Supervisors urges Archbishop Niederauer and the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Francisco to defy all discriminatory directives of Cardinal Levada; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the Board of Supervisors urges Cardinal William Levada, in his capacity as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican (formerly known as Holy Office of the Inquisition), to withdraw his discriminatory and defamatory directive that Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Francisco stop placing children in need of adoption with homosexual households.

The San Francisco city government, it seems to me, is quite entitled to express its views on gay rights questions, and to condemn groups that, in its view, express "hateful" ideas. It's entitled to do this even when those groups are religious groups -- whether the Catholic Church, some Islamic denomination, the Church of Scientology, or any other religious group.

It's possible that expressing views on a religious group's purely theological claims (as opposed to claims related to worldly conduct that affects other people) might violate the Establishment Clause. There is even some language in the Court's opinions, which condemn "endorsement or disapproval of religion," that suggests that any condemnation of a religious organization by name would beunconstitutional. But it seems to me that the right rule is that government officials must be able to comment on religious groups when their actions touch on secular matters, for instance arguing that terrorism is antithetical to the proper understanding of Islam, or that the Catholic Church's views on adoption by homosexual couples are wrong.

Still, though the resolution is constitutionally permissible, isn't there something a bit troubling about it?

Start with the old those-Catholics-are-controlled-by-a-foreign-potentate thing that has historically often been used to discredit American Catholic politicians, and that seems to me to have no relevance to the moral issues involved here. Opposition to same-sex adoption is right or wrong with no regard to whether the leaders of the opposition are in Italy or here.

Then we have waving the bloody shirt -- the centuries-old bloody shirt -- of pointing out that Cardinal Levada's organization was once "known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition." Yes, it was (this was not the Spanish Inquisition but the "Roman Inquisition, [which] was intended to combat Protestantism, but ... is perhaps best known historically for its condemnation of Galileo"), but hasn't just a little bit of time passed since then, and hasn't the Church slightly altered the practices that gave the Inquisition a bad name?

Levada's position today is really no different than the position of any leading theologian who is helping set policy for a hierarchical church, whether a foreign or domestic one, and whether one that has a long-ago history of physical abuse of heterics or not. Over the centuries, many religious groups and organizations have done some pretty bad things; it seems to me irrelevant and, especially for a government entity, needlessly divisive to dredge up their past sins in criticizing the actions of their present leaders.

It seems to me that if the San Francisco Board of Supervisors really wanted to act as "the government of [a] tolerant community" by "treat[ing] its minority populations with care and respect" (I quote here from another recent resolution, to avoid "creat[ing] a divisive atmosphere," and to "reflect the diversity of the community," it should have avoided suggesting that serious Catholics who follow the Church hierarchy's teachings are agents of a "meddl[ing]" "foreign country," or irrelevantly faulted their cherished institutions for those institutions' centuries-old sins.

Many thanks to Marty Lederman, who pointed out the matter to me, though I should make clear that he doesn't object to the Supervisors' general criticisms, and shares their view of the merits of the policy question (though not the religious one).