By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The state of Illinois is looking into allegations that several Catholic groups providing adoption services for the state illegally discriminate against unmarried and gay couples, a lawsuit filed on Tuesday showed.
In a March 8 letter to the charitable arm of the Diocese of Springfield, the Illinois attorney general's office said it was investigating reports the group "discriminates against Illinois citizens based on race, marital status and sexual orientation in its provision of foster care services."
The letter, which was included as an exhibit in a lawsuit filed by the charitable arms of the dioceses of Springfield, Peoria and Joliet, warned that such policies violated the Illinois Human Rights Act, a statute that bars discrimination, harassment or retaliation based on marital status or sexual orientation, among other things.
In the March 8 letter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan asked the diocese, which has a contract with the state's Department of Children and Family Services to help place children, to turn over a host of internal documents, including "all policies and requirements for adoptive parents and foster parents."
The letter, never before published according to both the attorney general and the diocese, was the only exhibit in a lawsuit filed by the three charities against the state of Illinois, Madigan and the state department.
According to the suit, the three dioceses -- which suspended some adoption and foster-care services earlier this month after Illinois legalized same-sex civil unions -- want to get back into the adoption and foster-care business in the state.
But first, they want a judge to rule that their policy of not placing children with unmarried couples is consistent with state law. That would include the Human Rights Act provision legalizing gay civil unions that took effect last week.
The Catholic groups argue they are exempt from some provisions of the law because it interferes with the practice of their religion. The Catholic church opposes same sex marriage and civil unions.
Peter Breen, the executive director of the Thomas More Society, which is representing the dioceses in the lawsuit, said the Catholic groups had asked in late April to meet with Madigan's office but had been unsuccessful in getting a meeting scheduled by June 1, when the new civil union law took effect.
Breen said they decided to have a court decide the issue rather than wait on the state.
Madigan's office said it was disappointed by the lawsuit.
"Unfortunately, instead of working with the state to ensure compliance with child protection and civil rights laws, the dioceses have opted to go to court," said Natalie Bauer, a spokeswoman for Madigan.
"It's the role of the Attorney General's office to ensure that all organizations in the state follow the law, including the civil rights laws. Organizations that receive taxpayer funding to provide public services must comply with the law."
(Reporting by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Greg McCune)