With a new civil-unions law soon taking effect, Catholic Charities says the organization might stop providing foster-care and adoption services if it is required to place children with same-sex couples.
"There's a real possibility that we will be forced out of foster care and adoption," Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, told reporters at a Statehouse news conference May 4, according the Associated Press.
For some time the Catholic Conferencethe official lobbying arm of the Catholic Churchhas been pushing to amend a Senate bill, which would carve out an exemption to the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, specifically saying faith-based organizations need not provide adoption or foster-care services to prospective same-sex parents in a civil union.
However, an openly gay lawmaker who sponsored the civil-unions legislation said the Catholic Conference and Catholic Charities are merely looking for a way to discriminate against gay people.
"Here's the issue," state Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, told Windy City Times. "They've wanted out [ from under the law ] for years because it is not the civil-unions law that governs [ adoption and foster-care policy ] ."
" [ Rather, the Illinois ] Human Rights Act, which has been the law for years, says you cannot discriminate in the provisions of public accommodations to any protected class, including religion, marital status, and sexual orientation," he explained. " [ The Catholic organizations ] are trying to use this [ civil-unions issue ] as a lever to get themselves exempted out from under the equal-treatment provisions of the existing state statue that has nothing to do with civil unions."
The new law, which takes effect June 1, extends all equivocal spousal benefits available at the state level to registered same-sex partners.
If Catholic Charities refuses to offer adoption or foster-care services to gay couples, the organization may be open to lawsuits or be denied state funding.
Catholic Charities officials say that its faith, or church teaching, does not allow the organization to place children in homes with same-sex couples.
"It's an issue of conscience," Gilligan said, according to the Associated Press.
"We simply cannot be the agency that processes an application for someone to be a foster parent if they are cohabitating in a civil union," said Tricia Fox, director of Catholic Charities of Peoria, quoted in the Springfield State Journal-Record.
For that reason the Catholic Conference wants to amend Senate Bill 1123 with language stating, "A child-welfare agency that is religiously based, owned, and operated by, or affiliated with a bona fide religious group may decline an adoption or foster-family application, including any related licensure and placement from a party to a civil union if acceptance of that application would constitute a violation of the organization's sincerely held religious beliefs."
The amendment also stipulates that if an agency declines an application, it must refer prospective parents to the Department of Children and Family Services for regional licensed child welfare agencies.
The Associated Press reported that leaders of the two Catholic organizations emphasize they are not trying to prevent same-sex couples from becoming adoptive or foster parents. Instead, they want gay couples to work with other agencies.
Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, sponsored the legislation. But last month the Senate Executive Committee voted against the measure seven to six, with one abstention, in effect killing the amendment.
The legislature, however, extended until May 4 the expiration date for SB 1123, which would have extended protections to public facilities and places for blind or visually and hearing impaired people.
Apparently, by holding press availability hours before the bill expired, the Catholic Conference and Catholic Charities hoped to persuade the Senate committee to reconvene and reconsider the amendment, which is unrelated to SB 1123's original content.
"It's not going anywhere at this point," Koehler told the Journal-Record, referring to the measure. "I don't think it's going to move."
Still, gay-rights leaders object to the use of public funds to discriminate against gay people.
"If [ Catholic Charities ] do [ es ] not want to let gay couples adopt or be foster parents, fine. Let them do it on their own dime and not on millions of dollars of Illinois taxpayers," said Rick Garcia, a practicing Catholic and longtime gay-rights activist.
Equality Illinois, the state's largest gay-rights group, has been saying that children's interests should come first.
"Catholic Charities is asking the state to create for itself an exemption, allowing Catholic Charities to take public funds to provide a public service on behalf of the state, but then to discriminate against a class of state citizens," said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois.
"This is especially heinous," he continued, "because they are playing with the welfare of children in the system. Instead of continuing to apply the best-interests-of-the-child standard in adoption and foster placements, Catholic Charities would use its own approach, rejecting otherwise qualified parents only because of their status as a same-sex couple in a civil union."
Cherkasov added," They should not be allowed to receive public funds to protect welfare of the children, and at the same time to wholly disregard the best-interests-of-the-child standards."
Anthony Martinez, executive director of The Civil Rights Agenda, a statewide advocacy group, said, "It is completely unthinkable that the Catholic Charities would deny a home to a child simply because the couple is same-sex."
A Catholic majority seems to agree. Recent polling found that 60 per cent of American Catholics nationwide say same-sex couples should not be limited in their ability to adopt of foster children, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
"How loud and unwavering do the voices of the faithful and children who are seeking a stable and loving home need to be before the Catholic Church truly listens and is drawn to be faithful to its mission of care and support?" said Chris Pett, Chicago chapter president of Dignity, an LGBT Catholic group.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Catholic Charities has more than 3,000 children in their foster and adoption services, representing 20 percent of all Illinois adoption and foster-care services, and that the state pays Catholic Charities $30 million annually for its services.
Currently, there are nearly 20,000 children in Illinois in process for foster care or adoption, according to the most recent figures from the US Department of Health & Human Services.
If Catholic Charities in Illinois decides to close its adoption and foster-care programs, it will not be the first Catholic social service agency in the nation to do so. Catholic Charities in the Boston and the Washington, D.C., archdioceses ended their programs rather than comply with state and city non-discrimination laws. In both locations, however, other public agencies took over, providing adoption services and foster-care placements.