Catholic Charities from three Illinois dioceses has sued the state of Illinois for violating its religious freedom after the state suggested that the organization was violating Illinois law by discriminating against unmarried couples-whether same-sex or not-in its adoption and foster care services. A new law legalizing civil unions in the state went into effect June 1.
The organization, which handles 20 percent of the state's adoption and foster care cases, says in the suit that it is in full compliance with Illinois law because Catholic Charities is protected by specific exemptions for religious adoption agencies. The Illinois attorney general's office wrote a letter to the Springfield Catholic Charities in March, saying the organization reportedly "discriminates against Illinois citizens based on race, marital status, and sexual orientation in its provision of adoption and foster care services." (Lawyers for the Springfield agency are baffled as to the basis of allegations that the organization is racially discriminating.) The attorney general's office asked for extensive documents from the organization going back to 2006.
The suit says the Illinois Department of Children & Families Services (DCFS) also wrote a letter in May to Evangelical Children & Family Services-a faith-based organization in Wheaton, Ill., that provides foster care services-and implied that the organization's contracts with the state would end if it didn't comply with the new civil union law. "The decision to proceed with providing foster care will be yours to make, not DCFS," the letter read. "If the policy changes conflict with your agencies' religious beliefs, you and your board can opt out of your foster care contracts." Evangelical Children & Family Services aren't part of this lawsuit, but the three Catholic Charities arms in the suit see that letter as further evidence that the government has faith-based groups in its sights. The suit seeks an injunction from a county circuit court to prevent the lawsuit the organization is expecting from the state.
"[P]laintiffs are forced to choose between abiding by their religious beliefs and commitments, on the one hand, and complying with defendants' invalid and over-broad interpretation of a new law," the suit reads.
The Illinois organization's decision to fight the state contrasts with Catholic Charities' approach elsewhere: The organization ended its contracts in Boston in 2006 and then with the District of Columbia in 2009 after same-sex civil union and marriage laws passed. But the Massachusetts and D.C. bills offered little protection for religious organizations.
"The Catholic Church in Illinois has decided to take a proactive stance so that the children have no disruption in their lives," said Peter Breen, one of the lawyers with the Thomas More Society representing Illinois Catholic Charities. "I hope this provides a model for other religious organizations to use instead of shutting down."
The state of Illinois is in a deep budget crisis, and the suit says social services are already at a "breaking point." Breen argued that the state's contracts are a good deal for taxpayers because Catholic Charities contributes 15 to 20 cents for every public dollar it receives-so if the organization ends its public contracts, "your tax dollar is going buy you a dollar in services," instead of a $1.15. The suit also argues that same-sex couples or unmarried heterosexual couples have access to adoption and foster care services elsewhere-Catholic Charities refer them to other agencies.
The three dioceses in the suit-Springfield, Joliet, and Peoria-temporarily suspended issuing new licenses for foster care and adoptive parents when the new civil union law went into effect June 1, as the organization awaits the outcome of the suit. Another arm of Catholic Charities in Rockford, Ill., ended its adoption and foster care contracts with the state when the new law went into effect and transferred cases to a non-faith-based organization.