The recent decision from an Illinois judge ruling that the state does not have to renew its foster and adoption contracts with Catholic Charities over their refusal to follow the newly passed civil unions law and offer its tax-payer funded services to same-sex couples for "religious reasons" brings a huge problem in our country into sharp focus. The role of "faith-based" religious organizations in providing our public, tax-payer-funded services has created a collision course between church and state.
While the judge affirmed that no one, including Catholic Charities, had a legal right to a contract with the government, he stopped short of addressing the core issue of whether a state contractor (which Catholic Charities is since they receive millions in tax dollars) has the right to refuse service to gays and lesbians under the state's new civil unions law. He also side-stepped any religious freedom questions and based his ruling solely on property and contractual rights.
While I am extremely pleased that roughly 25% of the adoption services paid for by the state and by our tax dollars will now be available to couples in civil unions, there is a larger issue that continues to go unanswered here. We, as a country, have farmed out our most basic services to religious organizations far too much, setting up this battle over civil rights versus religious freedom. Having a religious organization become a state contractor, in essence becoming an arm of the state, creates an untenable situation on all sides. The lines of church and state become not just blurred, but erased.
Civil rights legislation, like relationship recognition for same-sex couples or LGBT employment discrimination protections, are too often forced to carve out broad religious exemptions to "protect" these contractors, lessening their impact and creating a religious-based test for granting services. There are basic rights that must be separated from religious beliefs. We claim to be a country of laws and human rights, yet too often we cede those issues to religious groups. We do this by making them the providers of services themselves, funded by our tax dollars, then giving them loopholes from following the laws we pass.
Education, adoption services, feeding the poor, providing health care, and many other services have all been farmed out to religious organizations like Catholic Charities, setting up these legal battles over what should be government-funded and run services provided equally to all. We've seen cases ranging from religious-owned hospitals turning away the same-sex partners of patients to the horrendous effect of religious sponsored "abstinence only" sex education that has proven dangerously ineffective for young people around the country.
On a personal note, I've felt the effects of having to state receive services from a religious organization. My husband and I were foster parents in Florida, before the ban on gays adopting was lifted but we were still allowed to foster. We had to take our foster son to a Baptist mega-church for his monthly state caseworker visits. The state had farmed out its foster services to a "faith-based" organization, so we were forced to go into the church complex and get his services there. Let's just say that a openly gay couple walking into a Baptist-run, yet tax-payer funded, state foster agency with a teenage son didn't get the best treatment. The hostility to our family was palpable, but we had no alternatives since they were the legal arm of the state.
And we got off easy. Every day LGBT people around the country are forced into hostile situations with religious organizations providing public services or worse turned away from getting these tax-payer funded services altogether. As the legal rights for LGBT people and the general public's opinion move further in the direction of equality, we must keep working to separate these basic services from the religious entanglements we have accepted for far too long. Otherwise, our legal accomplishments for equality will come with huge caveats that leave them weaker and open for "exceptions."