Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Catholic Charities to end fight over foster care

By Jamey Dunn

Catholic Charities has given up its fight to administer foster care and adoption services in the state of Illinois.

The Thomas More Society announced today that it plans to drop its lawsuit against the state. The organization argued that the state did not have the right to end contracts with Catholic Charities to provide adoption and foster care services.

The dispute was over placing children in the homes of couples who have a civil union. Church representatives said it went against the organization’s belief system to place children with unmarried couples. Catholic Charities pushed for legislation that would have allowed them to refer couples in a civil union to another adoption and foster care provider, but the measure was shot down in committee. Kendall Marlowe, a spokesperson for the Department of Children and Family Services, said the agency did not renew the contracts because representatives of Catholic Charities voiced the organization’s intention not to comply with the state’s new civil unions law.

Opponents to ending the contracts say that provisions in the civil union law itself should protect religious-based organizations in situations like the one Catholic Charities is facing. “The dismantling of Catholic Charities’ foster care ministry marks a tragic end to 90 years of foster care service by some of the most effective child welfare agencies in Illinois,” Peter Breen of the Thomas More Society, said in a written statement. “The Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act only passed after specific assurances that the law would not impact the work of religious social service agencies. Specific protections for these agencies were written into the law, but unfortunately, Illinois officials refused to abide by those protections. This stands as a stark lesson to the rest of the nation that legislators promising ‘religious protection’ in same sex marriage and civil union laws may not be able to deliver on those promises.”

However, civil rights advocates argue that when an organization—religious or otherwise—goes into business with the state, it must treat everyone equally and fulfill all requirements set out by state law. “When a private organization — even a private religiously affiliated organization — performs what is really quintessentially a government function, such as screening foster homes for licensure or caring for the wards of the state, it must abide by the laws that bind the government. If the religiously affiliated organization does not want to abide by these laws, it should exercise its choice not to accept those government duties,” said Mary Dixon, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt ruled in August that Catholic Charities was not entitled to new contracts. “No citizen has a recognized legal right to contract with the government,” the opinion said. The Thomas More Society has filed an injunction trying to halt the end of contracts with Catholic Charities affiliates of the dioceses of Springfield, Joliet, Belleville and Peoria. But the group said it now plans to end its legal battle.

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