When Illinois’ new civil unions law went into effect at the beginning of June, it was clear that a showdown between the state and Catholic Charities, which operates the caseloads of nearly 2,000 foster children. And, sure enough, at the end of the month, Illinois severed its fifty-year relationship with Catholic Charities, because the agency had made it clear that it would refuse to place foster or adoptive children with gay couples, despite the new law’s passage.
Under its current policy, Catholic Charities grants foster care licenses only to married heterosexual couples or single individuals, and refers gay or unwed couples to other agencies. Illinois did not take kindly to this open flouting of its new recognition of civil unions. Now, however, a judge has ruled that Illinois cannot halt its contracts with Catholic Charities, at least not until a hearing in mid-August.
The Catholic Church has been known to put dogma before charity in other places where civil unions and gay marriage have been legalized. The most notable example is in Washington, DC, where in late 2009, the Archdiocese of Washington, DC announced that it would not continue the social service programs it ran for the city unless the District changed its same-sex marriage law. The threat flagrantly disregarded the needs of DC’s homeless population, one-third of whom use the shelters run by Catholic charities.
Here, the circumstances are a little different. According to the Stamford Advocate, the state has been investigating Catholic Charities since March because of allegations that it discriminated against same-sex couples. But the judge, John Schmidt, expressed concern that canceling the contracts so abruptly could hurt the children currently under Catholic Charities’ care. Abruptly shifting the children’s cases to other agencies could, he said, cause “irreparable injury.”
The tension here is obvious: no one wants to cause harm to Catholic Charities’ foster children, which abruptly changing the agency base would probably do. But, as an ACLU lawyer pointed out, the judge needs to be aware of “the terrible harm to children done by discrimination.” As LGBT advocate Waymon Hudson pointed out, in the first month after the civil unions law went into effect, 1600 same-sex couples entered into unions. All of those people would be denied adoptive and foster care rights by Catholic Charities.
Assistant Attorney General Deborah Barnes put her case succinctly: “The state declined to issue new contracts because the plaintiffs indicated they will not comply with state laws. There is no right to a contract with the government; they’re not compelled to then take control and administer it in a fashion which forces them to compromise their religious beliefs.”
For now at least, Catholic Charities will continue to deny adoption and foster care rights to same-sex couples. When the hearing happens in August, however, the state will surely make it amply clear that when an organization like Catholic Charities receives public money, it needs to follow the law.
Photo from Andreas Tille via Wikimedia Commons.