Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Catholic Charities may stop providing foster care services

By Jamey Dunn

Some faith-based organizations that provide adoption and foster care services for the state say they may have to stop if they are forced to place children with same-sex couples.

Senate Bill 1123, which would allow religious organizations to deny placement of a child with a couple who has entered into a civil union, failed to gain the needed support to pass out of a Senate committee today. Under the measure, if an organization turned a couple away, it would have to provide them with information about an alternative adoption and foster care program, such as the Department of Child and Family Services.

The bill has an unlikely sponsor. Sen. David Koehler, who also sponsored the law that will allow both same-sex couples and heterosexual couples to enter into civil unions starting in June, is backing this measure. Koehler said in supporting civil unions, he did not intend to start a religious battle that would take a toll on Illinois children.

“I guess amongst my many faults is that of being a pragmatist. I’m very proud to have been the sponsor of the civil unions bill and would like to see that work,” Koehler said. “Fighting on the fronts of what I would call religious wars in terms of who has to do what is really not where I would like to see our activity. I’d like to see our activity in terms of really embracing the rights of gays and lesbians in the state.”

Koehler noted that hospitals run by religious groups are allowed to decline non-emergency services that go against their parent organizations' religious doctrines.

Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference, said the six Illinois Catholic Charities  organizations and other religious-based groups are responsible for about 3,000 of the 16,000 children in foster care in Illinois. He said children needing foster care are assigned to Catholic Charities based mainly on their regional proximity to Catholic Charities versus other foster care providers.

Gilligan said that same-sex couples would still be able to be foster parents or adopt, and the legislation would simply allow religious groups to refer them to another program.

“I don’t think we can continue providing foster care and adoption services to the most poor and vulnerable in the state of Illinois if this legislation does not advance. I don’t see how we’re going to be able to do that,” Gilligan told the Senate committee. He added that if the church did stop contracting with the state for foster care, the greatest impact would be felt in central and southern Illinois.

Mary Dixon, legislative director for the ACLU, says the bill could keep children from being placed with gay family members or family members who have decided to opt for a civil union instead of a marriage, even though such a placement could be best for the child. “This legislation could in fact prevent a child from being with a loving lesbian aunt, grandmother or grandfather who would be unacceptable to a private agency because of [being] unmarried and in a civil union.”

Dixon cited studies that have found that gay and lesbian couples are equally effective parents as heterosexual couples. She said any policy that limits the pool of potential foster parents is harmful for children needing homes.

“When a private organization--even a private religiously affiliated organization--performs what is really quintessentially a government function, such as screening foster homes for licensure or caring for the wards of the state, it must abide by the laws that bind the government. If the religiously affiliated organization does not want to abide by these laws, it should exercise its choice not to accept those government duties,” Dixon said.

Dixon said while the ACLU traditionally advocates for the rights of religious groups to practice their beliefs without governmental interference, an organization that has contracted to provide a service for the state must treat everyone equally while providing that service. She says anything short of that would be “state sanctioned discrimination.”

Gilligan said after the committee vote that he did not know when Catholic Charities would decide whether it will continue providing foster care for the state.

This is one of the first major legal debates to emerge since the legislature approved civil unions last December.

“It’s never over until it’s over,” Gilligan said. The measure was one vote shy of passing in the committee and could come up for consideration again “We can’t put our guard down. The gay community [and] people who believe in fairness cannot put our guard down,” said Rick Garcia, former political director for Equality Illinois and longtime gay-rights activist.

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