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Bill attempts to amend state's civil-unions law
by Chuck Colbert

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In yet another attempt to exempt religiously affiliated child welfare agencies from providing adoption and foster-care services to gay couples, state Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Edwardsville, has introduced a bill that would amend the Illinois civil-unions law.

Kay filed the measure, House Bill 3774, on May 11, with the same language as a previous but unsuccessful Senate amendment.

The new bill states: "A child welfare agency that is religiously based or owned by, operated by, or affiliated with a bona fide religious organization may opt out of fulfilling a request for services, including an adoption or foster family home application, including any licensure and placement, which would constitute a violation of the organization's sincerely held religious doctrines or beliefs."

The House version 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.

Reached by phone, Kay told Windy City Times he filed the bill with only one purpose in mind. "The Catholic diocese in our area and the Catholic Children's Home would like to keep their doors open and continue to serve the state of Illinois in a useful capacity," he explained.

Kay said that officials from Catholic Charities and the Catholic Children's Home asked him to file the legislation.

Located in Alton, the Catholic Children's Home is sponsored and supported by the Springfield diocese. The home "serves to promote and care for the needs, education and welfare of dependent, neglected or otherwise needy children and youths who need structured care away from their own homes," according to the agency's web site. The home provides services "without regard to poverty, riches, race, religion, or national origin of the youths."

Kay viewed the bill's religious exemption as "a reasonable accommodation," he said, adding his intent is "in no way to discriminate, but to keep the doors of the Catholic Children Home open. If this is the only way to that, I am willing to do what it takes."

However an openly gay lawmaker who sponsored the civil unions law said once again that Catholic leaders and legislative allies are looking for a way around state law to discriminate against gay and lesbian people.

"Whether it starts in the House or whether it starts in the Senate, this seems to be an attempt to carve out a niche where a state-funded agency can discriminate against one group of citizens," said state Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago. "That is unacceptable."

Kay said he understands that argument. Still, "I guess you could also make the argument that we are discriminating against the Church," he said.

Carolyn Matheson, director of advancement for Catholic Charities of the Peoria diocese, agreed. "Hypocritically, the same people who say we're discriminatory are discriminating against us for remaining true to Catholic moral teaching," she told the National Catholic Register.

Not so, said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, the state's largest gay-rights group. "The Church does not have to do anything that violates its beliefs," he said. "It's that [Church officials] just cannot ask the state to fund their religious activities if they are not willing to comply with the best-interest-of-the-child standard. If they are not willing to comply, then the public should not fund them. It's clear and simple. They cannot have it both ways."

Meanwhile, the spring session of the legislature is likely to adjourn by the end of this month. With time running out, Kay acknowledged his bill has a slim chance.

"I don't see it getting to a committee hearing until next year, when it would have to be refilled, unless it's picked up and moved out of committee for a vote in the fall," he said.

Time fast approaches, too, for the historic civil-unions law, which takes effect on June 1 and extends equivocal spousal benefits available at the state level to registered same-sex partners.

If Catholic or other religiously affiliated social service and child-welfare agencies refuse to offer adoptive or foster-care services to gay couples in civil unions, the organizations may be open to lawsuits or be denied state funding.

Already, "Illinois officials are investigating whether religious agencies that receive public money to license foster care and adoptive parents are breaking anti-discrimination laws if they turn away potential parents who are openly gay," the Chicago Tribune reported.

Moreover, "If they are found in violation, Lutheran Child and Family Services, Catholic Charities in five regions outside Chicago, and the Evangelical Child and Family Agency will have to license openly gay foster parents or lose millions of state dollars, potentially disrupting thousands of foster children in their care," according to the Tribune.

The Illinois Human Rights Act, in fact, prohibits discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of any number of enumerated and protected categories, including sexual orientation, marital status and religion.

"If Catholic Charities and Lutheran (Missouri Synod) Child Family Services want to discriminate against gay people, fine," said gay-rights activist Rick Garcia, a practicing Catholic. "If they feel so strongly about this, let them give up the millions in state money."

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.

Five Catholic Charities branches associated with Illinois dioceses are responsible for about 20 percent of the state's foster-care case adoptions, according to the Catholic Register.

However, in 2007 Catholic Charities in the Chicago archdiocese halted such services because of prohibitively expensive liability insurance.

For some time, the Catholic Conference of Illinois—the official lobbying arm of the Catholic Church—has been pushing for a religious exemption, saying that Catholic agencies would be forced out of providing foster-care and adoption services if they are not able to opt out.

"It's an issue of conscience," said Robert Gilligan, the organization's executive director, according to the Associated Press.

Attempts to reach Gilligan were unsuccessful.

For its part, the Civil Rights Agenda, a statewide advocacy organization, issued a statement. "We have been expecting this legislation to be filed in the House and we have a strategy in place," said Lowell Jaffe, the group's political director.

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