At issue are nearly 2,000 children under the care of Catholic Charities in three dioceses -- Springfield, Peoria and Joliet. After the law went into effect in June, the organizations claimed they were exempt and asserted they would not be placing children in homes led by homosexual parents. They also filed a pre-emptive suit against the state.
The Illinois Department of Children & Family Services interpreted the law differently, and sent a letter to Catholic Charities saying the agencies were not exempt and that the state was severing its relationship and would move the children elsewhere.
Catholic Charities won a small victory Tuesday when a state judge issued a preliminary injunction siding with Catholic Charities, allowing the agencies to maintain the contract for now. The case will be heard Aug. 17.
The new law is named, ironically, the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act. It grants same-sex couples the legal benefits of marriage, except the name itself.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, defended the state's actions.
"They made a choice," he said of Catholic Charities, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. "They have a law in Illinois. It's the civil unions law. I signed it into law. We're not going back. Any organization that decides that because of the civil unions law that they won't participate voluntarily in a program, that's their choice."
It is but the latest example of religious liberty colliding with laws recognizing same-sex relationships. In New York, Laura Fotusky, a town clerk in Barker, N.Y., said she will resign from her position July 21, three days before a law legalizing "gay marriage" goes into effect. She said her religious beliefs prohibit her from signing marriage certificates for same-sex couples. Town clerks are an elected position.
"The Bible clearly teaches that God created marriage between male and female as a divine gift that preserves families and cultures," Fotusky wrote in a resignation letter. "Since I love and follow Him, I cannot put my signature on something that is against God."
Another town clerk, Barbara MacEwen of Volney, N.Y., did not threaten to resign but told Politico.com, "I don't feel I should be forced into something that's against my morals and my God."
The clash between Catholic Charities and the state of Illinois was not a surprise and was discussed when the law, then a bill, was being debated on the legislative floor. But language that would have explicitly exempted adoption and foster care agencies was defeated and didn't make it into the law. Catholic Charities, though, maintains it nevertheless remains exempt because language in the bill says, "Nothing in this Act shall interfere or regulate the religious practice of any religious body." In its 33-page lawsuit, the agencies say that because adoption and foster care services "are essential parts of their religious mission and practice, the new Act is clearly inapplicable to them." They also say the bill's senate sponsor interpreted the language during floor testimony as exempting adoption agencies.
The agencies, represented in part by the Thomas More Society legal group, have had a practice of referring same-sex couples to agencies that place children in homosexual homes. Catholic Charities says they will maintain that policy under the new law.
"This is a great win for the 2,000 children under the care of Catholic Charities, protecting these kids from the grave disruption that the state's reckless decision to terminate would have caused," Peter Breen, executive director and attorney for the Thomas More Society, said in a statement. "We will continue this fight until all young people in need now and in the future are guaranteed their right to receive the high-quality foster and adoption care that the Catholic Church has provided for over a century to Illinois children."
The lawsuit says it is the agencies' "established religious practice ... not to entertain or process applicants for adoption or foster care placements in homes of unmarried cohabiting heterosexual couples or same sex couples." Those types of applications "already are adequately processed by other social service agencies," the suit said.
For years, traditionalists have warned the legalization of civil unions and "gay marriage" would have a widespread negative impact on religious liberty, affecting not only some adoption agencies but also the tax-exempt status of religious organizations, the religious liberty of private businesses and curriculum in elementary schools.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.
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