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Foster, adoption debate sparked by civil union law

In a dispute that has been brewing since Illinois lawmakers drafted the civil union statute, Catholic Charities and the state's Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) are going head-to-head about the former's obligations under the new civil union law. The religious organization receives state funding to support its foster care and adoption services.

At issue is the agency's long-standing policy not to adopt to or place foster children with unmarried cohabiting couples. The Catholic Church maintains that a civil union is not a marriage, and, so, couples joined in a civil union do not qualify for the agency's services. Gay or straight, said one executive, these couples do not qualify under the dioceses' guidelines.

The state disagrees. The law grants the partners in a civil union the same rights and privileges they would have if they were married. A civil union should, then, qualify for Catholic Charities' services.

Each Catholic diocese in Illinois has its own Catholic Charities organization. The organizations are separate and can offer different services to the diocese. For example, the Chicago diocese's Catholic Charities stopped offering foster care and adoption services in 2007. And another diocese opted to end its publicly funded services effective June 1 -- the effective date of the civil union law.

Three dioceses' agencies, though, have taken the problem to court. And they have suspended their foster care and adoption services until the case is decided.

The agencies are asking the court to put a stop to state enforcement of anti-discrimination policies that address civil unions.

Catholic Charities was reportedly reacting to a government inquiry the agencies were informed of in March. The attorney general is attempting to determine if religious agencies may lawfully deny foster care and adoption applications based on the sexual orientation and marital status of the applicants.

The complaint asks the court to allow Catholic Charities to grant licenses exclusively to married couples and singles living alone (without regard to sexual orientation). The agencies propose that they be permitted to refer civil union couples to other agencies.

For Catholic Charities, the right to operate their organizations within the bounds of their religious beliefs is paramount.

DCFS is wary of making the referral scheme permanent. The attorney general's office agrees. Non-compliance with child protection and civil rights laws may not be a viable long-term solution.

State law requires agencies receiving public funding to follow state child welfare laws, not the religious views of the agencies.

Source: Chicago Tribune, "Catholic Charities sues state over foster care," Manya A. Brachear, 06/07/2011

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