A Catholic diocese in northern Illinois said Thursday that it will end its state-funded adoption and foster-care program rather than comply with a new law that would require it to place children with gay or unmarried couples, and officials said other dioceses would decide quickly whether to follow suit.
Officials from the Rockford Diocese said they were forced to terminate state contracts worth $7.5 million after lawmakers failed to pass an amendment exempting religious groups from provisions of the state's new civil unions law, which will let gay and lesbian couples form civil unions, a rough equivalent to marriage. The law takes effect June 1.
Catholic Charities wanted to be allowed to refer unmarried or gay couples to other agencies, as it has for years.
Diocese officials said Thursday that allowing such adoptions or foster placements would violate teachings of the Catholic faith.
"The law of our land has always guaranteed its people freedom of religion," diocese spokeswoman Penny Wiegert said. "Denying this exemption to faith-based agencies leads one to believe that our lawmakers prefer laws that guarantee freedom from religion."
The Civil Rights Agenda, a gay rights advocacy group, issued a statement calling the diocese's decision "a sad display of bigotry" and said religious freedom "is granted only when the religious agency is not funded by taxpayer dollars."
"I am mindful that this is a sad day for the many foster families and parents involved and the children who are in the care of Catholic Charities," TCRA Executive Director Anthony Martinez said.
Illinois Department of Children and Family Services officials said there are enough private child welfare agencies to take over foster placement and adoptions for the roughly 300 children in the Rockford Diocese's foster-care program when it ends June 1.
"Catholic Charities in Rockford has served children and families with compassion for many years, and we thank them for their service," DCFS Director Erwin McEwen said in a written statement. "We will take every step necessary to ensure that the children are well cared for and the foster families are well supported during this transition."
Rockford and four other Catholic dioceses in Illinois are among 45 private agencies that provide state-funded adoption and foster-care services, DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe said. The dioceses provide services to about 2,300 of the 15,000 children in the foster-care system, while two other religious groups provide care to about 1,000 children, Marlowe said.
He said some of the 42 caseworkers in the Rockford Diocese could be hired by new agencies.
Catholic charity groups place children only with married couples or single people _ not with couples living together. They consider couples in civil unions to be unmarried and therefore not eligible to adopt or provide foster care through their programs.
But refusing to place children with gay couples could open the charities to lawsuits or lead state government to cut off funding.
Leaders of the Catholic groups have said they aren't trying to keep gay couples from adopting or taking in foster children _ just that it's a matter of having those couples work with other groups.
Catholic officials said they hope the Rockford Diocese's decision will persuade the General Assembly to reconsider such an exemption.
But if it doesn't, other dioceses could decide to withdraw from the state program, said Bob Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois.
"We're not bluffing. This is a serious issue," said Gilligan, who said other dioceses will decide on the fate of their programs within a week to 10 days after the new state law takes effect. "No diocese is going to willingly put a child in a same-sex household."
Associated Press Writer Christopher Wills in Springfield, Ill., contributed to this story.