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Judge Schmidt (Associated Press/Photo by Seth Perlman, file)

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Courts | An Illinois judge rules against Catholic Charities in its bid to preserve foster care contracts

A county judge in Illinois ruled against Catholic Charities on Thursday, knocking down its bid to preserve its foster care and adoption contracts with the state. The state ended its contracts with the charities this summer after passing a law recognizing same-sex civil unions. The state of Illinois informed Catholic Charities, an arm of the Catholic Church, that its policy of limiting foster and adoptive parents to heterosexual married couples violates the new civil unions law.

Three major Illinois dioceses sued the state, arguing that religious adoption agencies have specific protection under the civil unions law, which is titled "The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act." Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt didn't address the central question of whether religious organizations with state contracts have religious freedom protections, but wrote in a three-page ruling that the state could decide to renew contracts as it wished.

"No citizen has a recognized legal right to a contract with the government," Schmidt wrote. "Plaintiffs are not required by the state to perform these useful and beneficial services. . . . Plaintiffs' contracts with the state, which is renewable annually, is a desire of the plaintiffs to perform their mission as directed by their religious beliefs." Schmidt heard oral arguments on Wednesday.

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The lawyers for Catholic Charities argued in court that the four decades of contracts shouldn't have ended without sufficient warning or a public hearing, according to The Chicago Tribune. But Schmidt wrote in his ruling, "The fact that the plaintiffs have contracted with the state . . . for over forty years does not vest the plaintiffs with a protected property interest."

The civil unions law went into effect June 1, and the foster care and adoption contracts expired June 30. The Illinois attorney general's office sent a letter in June accusing Catholic Charities of discriminating "against Illinois citizens based on race, marital status, and sexual orientation." (The organization's lawyers were baffled about the accusations of racial discrimination.) In July, the state informed Catholic Charities that it would not be renewing the foster care and adoption contracts.

Catholic Charities handled 20 percent of the state's foster and adoption caseload. About a month ago, Schmidt issued a temporary injunction against the state's decision to end the contracts so that the matter could be sorted out in court. The Illinois organization's decision to fight the state in court contrasts with Catholic Charities' approach elsewhere: The organization itself ended public contracts in Boston in 2006 and then in 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 groups.

The lawyers for Catholic Charities are reviewing the ruling and "considering next actions," they said. An appeal of the decision would go to the 7th Judicial Circuit Court of Illinois and then to the state Supreme Court. As the case stands, Catholic Charities in Illinois will need to find other organizations to provide for the 2,000 foster children in its care.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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