Setback to church in adoption fight

Peter Breen

The Catholic church has no “recognized legal right” to a contract with the state, a judge said in ruling that Illinois officials can legally cancel contracts with Catholic Charities over the church agency’s refusal to place adoptive children with same-sex couples.

A lawyer for the church, however, said he will seek a stay of the ruling, arguing that Circuit Judge John Schmidt, in his Aug. 18 ruling, did not address the heart of the church’s argument that Catholic Charities comes under exercise of religion protections.

The state moved to cancel the contracts after an Illinois law permitting civil unions went into effect in June. Catholic Charities, following church teaching that homosexual unions are sinful, refuses to place children with same-sex couples. The agency currently provides 20 percent of the adoptions and foster care services statewide and receives a reported $30 million a year from the state for providing the services.

Attorney Peter Breen, executive director and legal counsel for the Thomas More Society, which is representing the dioceses of Joliet, Peoria and Springfield in the dispute, said the judge’s short order, delivered the day following a hearing on the issue, “did not meet the merits of our claim that Catholic Charities is protected under the law” regarding exercise of religion.

He said within the next two weeks lawyers for the church would seek a stay of the judge’s ruling until all appeals have been made. A stay would prevent children from being placed under state auspices. Breen said the state has told the church it would not start removing children from the church’s auspices immediately, but that “we don’t have a lot of time.”

While it is fundamental law that “one does not have a right to a contract with the state,” Breen said, “it is also law that the state cannot refuse a contract for illegal reasons.” Another way of putting the argument, he said, is that “no one has a right to be employed by a particular employer, but you have a right not to be terminated for illegal reasons.” In this case, Breen said, the state has terminated the current agreement and effectively excluded Catholic Charities from consideration for future contracts based on the agency’s exercise of religion.

Breen said he expects the decisions to “play out quickly,” noting that “there are nearly 2,200 children at stake, spread across 89 counties.”

Breen said he is skeptical of the state’s claim that it could “seamlessly” take over the adoption services provided by Catholic Charities.

But that seems to be the case in the Rockford, Ill., diocese, which earlier this year announced that Catholic Charities offices there would no longer offer state-funded adoptions and foster care.

Penny Wiegert, diocesan spokesperson, said in an earlier interview with NCR that the Youth Service Bureau of Illinois Valley hired all of the former Catholic Charities caseworkers, assumed leases on many of the buildings used in the 11-county area served and is handling the approximately 350 foster family and adoption cases previously handled by the church.

Two Illinois bishops posted statements reacting to the ruling on the Thomas More Society Web site.

“The message from the state of Illinois is simple: Organizations that only place children in accord with their religious beliefs are barred from state contracts -- Catholics need not apply,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield.

Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria lamented that Illinois did not provide the same religious exemption allowed by New York and Rhode Island after those states permitted civil unions. His spokesperson said the bishop “is sad to observe that important elements of the political establishment in the state of Illinois are now basically at war with the Catholic community and seem to be destroying their institutions.”

In effect, Breen said in an earlier interview, the church wished merely to continue historic practice. In the past, he said, Catholic Charities would refuse to consider unmarried couples eligible to adopt but would refer them to other adoption agencies.

“Unmarried couples have been eligible to be foster parents, and we have not worked with them,” Breen said, yet they made arrangements with the state agency. “Why is it when civil unions occur, why has everything changed now?”

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is]

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