Catholic group drops child programs as civil unions take effect in Illinois

This past spring, debate in Colorado over a same-sex civil unions bill raised questions about citizen equality, child and family protections, religious freedom and anti-gay bigotry. News coming out of Illinois, where a civil unions bill that passed in the fall is now taking effect, resurfaces those same issues. Catholic Charities of Rockford, a city just northwest of Chicago, announced it would no longer provide its state-funded foster care and adoption services. Organization representatives said they would not place children with unmarried couples and that the law now exposed them to litigation for that stand.

The Chicago Tribune reported that the decision could displace roughly 350 foster children and throw nearly 60 employees out of work.

“While we understand leaving this work will be very painful for our client families, employees, volunteers, donors and prayerful supporters, we can no longer contract with the state of Illinois whose laws would force us to participate in activity offensive to the moral teachings of the church — teachings which compel us to do this work in the first place,” Frank Vonch, director of social services for the Rockford diocese, told the Tribune.

Opinions differ about whether the present law protects Catholic Charities and other organizations that hold similar views from state and federal discrimination statutes.

American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois attorney Benjamin Wolf said that the need for child services in Rockford is great and so the decision on the part of the Catholic Charities agency there was disturbing. He said he thought the organization could have chosen a less-needy area of the state to make a statement of opposition to the new law.

“Rockford would not be the place I would’ve chosen… I am very sorry that they would give a greater priority to their commitment to continue discriminating than the health and welfare of Illinois children.”

The Rockford Register Star editorial board wrote that Catholic Charities of course had a right to its views but said the organization had to follow state laws if it was going to continue to accept tax money for its child care and placement programs.

“[C]hurch officials asked the legislature for special dispensation to discriminate… Catholic Church officials say the law doesn’t respect their right to define their own teachings. They still have that right. But when their teachings don’t respect state law, they shouldn’t expect Illinois to look the other way and award a contract anyway.”

The news from Illinois dovetails with developments in Washington. Christian groups are this week decrying the “Every Child Deserves a Family Act” introduced by Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., which they say would force organizations that receive federal aid to place children with families without regard to the sexual orientation or marital status of the prospective parents.

Peter Sprigg of the Christian right Family Research Council said the act would “either ban Christian adoption agencies or forbid them from acting on their faith convictions and their moral convictions in terms of what is in the best interest of a child.”

In Colorado this spring, Catholic Denver Archdiocese representatives led opposition to the civil unions bill, appearing at the capitol repeatedly to testify against it.

In a letter posted after the bill was narrowly defeated, Denver Archbishop Chaput argued that the aim of the bill was to “secure legitimacy for personal behaviors that most societies and religious traditions have found problematic.” He said a “great many people [see homosexuality] as morally troubling, not because they are ‘haters’ or ‘frightened’ or ‘bigots’ or ‘uneducated’— that kind of language is the real bigotry in this debate— but because they’ve carefully thought through the implications for society at large.”

Opposition to the bill was overwhelmingly justified on religious grounds, even among most lawmakers who opposed the bill.

Many religious leaders, however, supported the bill for the way it bolstered families by encouraging commitment.

Lawmakers on the right and left supported the bill in part for the protections it would have provided the children of same-sex couples, who are presently left in relative legal limbo in cases where guardian-couples break up. There is no law on the books to ensure child visitation or financial support in such cases.

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