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Court rules against Catholic Charities in foster-care case
News update posted Aug. 19, 2011
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times

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A circuit court judge ruled Aug. 18 against four Catholic charities in a lawsuit against the state over the right to continue with foster care services.

Judge John Schmidt ruled that the state did not violate the rights of charities in in Peoria, Belleville, Springfield and Joliet when The Department of Children and Family Services ( DCFS ) denied the charities foster care contracts. The state denied the contracts because the charities had refused to place children with unmarried and civil union couples.

Schmidt issued the judgment just a day after the two sides faced off in crowded Sangamon County courtroom Aug. 17.

"The fact that the Plaintiffs have contracted with the State to provide foster care and adoption services for over forty years does not vest the Plaintiffs with a protected property interest," Schmidt wrote in the judgment. "The State may refuse to renew the Plaintfiffs' contracts."

The charities had claimed that the DCFS decision not to renew contracts was illegal under religious freedom protections and argued that they have a right to continue foster care work without compromising religious practice.

"We believe that we do comply [ with the law ] because there is an exemption there," said Thomas Brejcha, an attorney for the four charities. "To say that somehow our entities are the same as non-sectarian agencies is to say that alpha is the same as omega."

The issue arose with the passage of the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, which conferred the same legal rights to same-sex couples in civil unions as married couples and went into effect June 1.

Brejcha said that language in the civil union act allowed the charities to send civil union couples and unmarried people to other foster care agencies. He further argued that the state had ended its 40-year relationship with the charities without warning or reason.

However, attorneys for the state argued that the charities had no right to contracts in the first place, and that it would be illegal for the state to offer contracts that violated civil union law.

"The state has the freedom to set the limits of its contracts," said Deborah Barnes, an attorney with the Office of the Attorney General. "It wasn't arbitrary and capricious, the ending of this 40-year relationship… the legal landscape has changed."

Also arguing against the charities was the American Civil Liberties Union ( ACLU ) , which was granted the right to intervene in the suit on behalf of a lesbian and children who are wards of the state.

Karen Sheley, a lawyer with the ACLU said that a refusal to place children with same-sex civil union partners would harm LGBT children in foster care and discourage LGBT couples from becoming foster parents.

"When they send [ a case ] to another agency, it doesn't solve the problem," she said. "It's still discrimination."

However, Schmidt said that arguments about discrimination from both sides would not impact his decision. He repeatedly discouraged arguments related to LGBT and religious rights and urged for focus on property rights.

"Do you or do you not have a legally protected property interest?" Schmidt asked.

Brejcha said that licenses from the state which allowed the charities to carry out foster care work were a property interest. Attorneys for the state said that such licenses do not guarantee contracts and that the charities were not being forced to participate now that the law has changed.

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