SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — An Illinois judge on Tuesday put Catholic Charities back in the business of finding foster and adoptive homes for children, reinstating – at least temporarily – contracts that were halted when the not-for-profit agency refused to recognize the state's new civil unions law.
The Sangamon County Circuit Court ruling applies to contracts between the agency and the Department of Children and Family Services. The decree is temporary until the matter can be decided after an August hearing.
DCFS ended its decades-long relationship with the agency last month because Catholic Charities refused to recognize Illinois' new civil unions law and allow gay couples and others living together outside marriage to be foster or adoptive parents. The contracts were worth $30.6 million to four Catholic dioceses in the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to DCFS records.
The state says that violates civil rights law and the attorney general has been investigating Catholic Charities since March on a complaint that it discriminates based on sexual orientation.
But Judge John Schmidt said the abrupt termination of the contracts could affect foster kids' well-being despite the state's assurances that about 2,000 foster children in Catholic Charities-supported homes would not be affected. He set a hearing on the matter Aug. 17.
"We need to work together in these things, not to have this absolute bulwark, walls of separation between us," Catholic Charities lawyer Thomas Brejcha of Chicago said after the hearing. "All these kids need a good chance."
The suit argues that the state can only enforce its dicta if there is a "compelling government interest" and it's the "least restrictive" means of achieving it. A far less restrictive method would be allowing Catholic Charities to continue referring gay couples to other agencies who handle adoptions and foster placements, its lawyers said.
The social services agencies in the Catholic dioceses of Joliet, Peoria and Springfield sought an injunction against the state's termination of the contracts the not-for-profit says have been renewed annually for decades. Its representatives said the law allowing civil unions among gay couples, which took effect June 1, prohibits attempts to "interfere with or regulate religious practice."
State officials argued Catholic Charities' cause was moot because the contracts expired June 30 and were not renewed, but Schmidt disagreed.
"The state declined to issue new contracts because the plaintiffs indicated they will not comply with state laws," said Assistant Attorney General Deborah Barnes, representing DCFS and the Illinois Department of Human Rights. "There is no right to a contract with the government; they're not compelled to then take control and administer it in a fashion which forces them to compromise their religious beliefs."
A DCFS spokesman could not immediately say how much the contracts are worth. Another Catholic Charities lawyer, Peter Breen, said the judge's ruling reinstates the contract that was in effect June 30, which means it's business as usual.
The Belleville Diocese also finds placements but is not part of the suit. Rather than comply with the civil union requirements imposed by the state, the Chicago and Rockford dioceses voluntarily gave up their foster-home and adoption services.