While three faith-based foster care agencies receive state funding in excess of roughly $40 million annually as contractors with the state of Illinois responsible for licensing foster parents, LGBT advocates have cried foul as these agencies all have policies denying licenses to openly gay and lesbian parents.
The agencies, advocates argue, are discriminating against queer applicants on the basis of their sexual orientation, while the agencies contend they are protected by religious exemptions found in state, county and city non-discrimination law.
The issue was most recently raised to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) last fall after a gay couple living in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood attempted to adopt a 15-year-old boy, a ward of the state for seven years, through the Lutheran Child and Family Services (LCFS). LCFS eventually denied the couple's application despite the mens' assertion that the agency had already known about their sexual orientations for months prior to that decision.
The controversy spurred DCFS to converse with LGBT advocates in concert with the governor's office and state attorney's general office to "begin to resolve the legal issues" surrounding the gay parent-barring policies of LCFS, Catholic Charities and the Evangelical Child and Family Agency. The possible result of these conversations will likely come down to a choice for the agencies involved: Change their policy and allow for openly gay and lesbian people to be licensed as foster parents or lose state funding.
Kendall Marlowe, DCFS spokesman, confirmed to the Windy City Times that conversations are continuing today as part "an ongoing review of all the related legal issues" in the matter. The review currently has no deadline and could take some time to resolve, he said.
"This is not the kind of thing someone can go look up in the book," Marlowe said.
Marlowe added the passage of the state's civil-unions legislationwhich officially becomes law on June 1has further contributed to an already "very complex set of interrelated legal issues" concerning the faith-based agencies' denial of foster care licenses to same-sex couples. Private foster care agenciesmany of whom are faith-based, the majority of whom do not bar same-sex couplesoversee some 80 percent of the state's foster children.
In an article published March 2 in the Chicago Tribune, LCFS CEO Gene Svebakken indicated that his agency would likely change their policy to avoid the risk of losing their state contract. LCFS is affiliated with the conservative Missouri Synod denomination of the Lutheran Church, which has typically frowned on gay parenting. Nevertheless, a spokesperson for the denomination told the Tribune they did not foresee cutting ties with the agency if they make such a decision. LCFS did not respond to the Windy City Times' request for comment for this story at press time.
Both Catholic Charities and the Evangelical Child and Family Agency, however, said that they would not be changing their policies to include gay and lesbian families, again, citing their religion's teachings and religious institutions' exceptions to anti-discrimination law.
Jill Metz, a Chicago attorney whose areas of practice include adoption and family law, argued those exceptions are meant to apply to an institution carrying out "core religious functions" rather than providing a contracted service for the state of Illinois.
"These agencies get huge Illinois tax dollars that everybody in Illinois contributes to," Metz said. "If we start allowing organizations to say they have a problem with doing this or that because of their religious beliefs while they're taking state dollars, we exclude people from the fairness and equality that are required under our Constitution."
"These functions are not religiously connected, but they are contracts they enter into with the state of Illinois," she added.
Benjamin Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)-Illinois, one of the organizations that has pressed DCFS to look into the matter, echoed Metz's finding. He sees the agencies' exclusion of gay parents as a limitation of resources to help the estimated 16,000-plus children currently living in Illinois' foster care system.
"These agencies turn away people who could provide good, loving, long-standing homes and we think that's a bad policy," Wolf said. "You can have your own private religious views to the extent that you want, but when you are caring for state wards, you need to prioritize that role first."
Both Wolf and John Knight, another attorney with ACLU, were hopeful that DCFS will decide to require more inclusiveness on the part of all private agencies with whom they contract. Such a decision would right a wrong Knight said sends a particularly strong message to the many LGBT-identified youth who are wards of the state.
"We're removing a potential family for LGBT kids but we're also sending a message to those kids through certain agencies that they aren't really welcome now or in the future," Knight said. "We're telling them that when they grow up, they can't be licensed as foster parents either, and there's a stigma that comes with that."