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Kyle McCarter (AP/Stephen Rickerl, The Southern Illinoisan, file)

Religious freedom?

Religion | Illinois Senate looks to exempt faith-based foster care organizations from civil unions law

The state of Illinois this year ended a 46-year public-private foster care partnership with the Evangelical Child and Family Association. Faced with a new requirement to refer children to civil union couples, the association decided not to alter its founding purposes, and the state severed ties with the association in a Sept. 7 letter.

As a result, the Wheaton, Ill., association lost approximately 70 percent of its prior foster care work, transferring 242 children's cases to two organizations, along with two-thirds of its staff and two of its three Illinois offices.

Director Ken Withrow said the organization's highest priority was to preserve the casework knowledge and avoid disruption in the children's lives. "We didn't want any harm to the kids," Withrow said. "We continue to encourage people to become foster parents."

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Following a suit by Catholic Charities agencies, a state court's interpretation of the Illinois law preserved the state's decision to no longer work with faith-based organizations that do not place children with couples in civil unions. (See "Denied," Aug. 19.) Both Catholic Charities and the Evangelical Child and Family Association have said they would refer civil union couples to other agencies that place children in those households. On behalf of the Catholic Charities agencies, attorneys from the Thomas More Society have also requested the court for an emergency stay.

According to state Sen. Kyle McCarter, it's ironic that the Illinois law that caused this upheaval boasts of protecting "religious freedom" in its title: The Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act. "You would think that [religious freedom] was going to come into play somewhere in the bill," said McCarter, a Republican who is fighting for an exemption for faith-based foster care organizations. His proposal, SB 2495, is a repeat of an amendment put forth by the original bill's author, Democratic Sen. David Koehler. But the amendment, which would allow faith-based agencies to refer civil union couples to other agencies, was never released from committee in an earlier effort.

In an Oct. 20 letter to supporters of Catholic Charities agencies, Gary Huelsmann, executive director of Catholic Social Services (CSS) of Southern Illinois, urged recipients to make their voices heard to legislators, noting that 2,000 children and families would be affected. "Ask [lawmakers] why the state insists on dismantling CSS and disrupting the lives of vulnerable children, and why they are not doing anything about it," he wrote.

Illinois legislators went home Oct. 27 without acting on McCarter's amendment. The next brief legislative window begins Nov. 8, which will likely be the last session of this year. McCarter, who has one Democrat co-sponsor from southern Illinois, Sen. William Haine, believes the bill will pass if it comes before the state Senate's 35-24 Democratic majority.

McCarter said the bill's sponsors publicly insisted last year that the legislation would not pose problems for religious organizations, and he is upset that the court would ignore legislative intention that was read into the record. Democrat leaders, he said, should embrace his bill since it restores their original intentions. A Dec. 1, 2010, press release from Koehler echoes the message at the time: "Religious organizations are exempted-they do not have to solemnize civil unions or recognize civil unions in any religious practices."

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