.- Catholic Charities of Illinois plans to challenge the Department of Children and Family Services' unexpected decision to end its foster care partnership with three local dioceses.
“We are going into court tomorrow in an attempt to stop this, because we believe it's an illegal action for several reasons,” said Peter Breen, Executive Director and Legal Counsel at the Illinois-based Thomas More Society, in a July 11 interview with CNA.
“What the Quinn administration has done,” he said, “is a statement of wanting to end, unilaterally, an over 30-year partnership with Catholic Charities to provide foster care for the children of the state of Illinois. He said the move would “displace 2,500 children in foster care across the state, who are under the care of Catholic Charities.”
Catholic Charities' dispute with the state centers on Illinois' recently-implemented Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act, which gave a measure of legal status to same-sex partnerships.
The three dioceses claim that their Catholic Charities offices remain free, under that law, to place foster children only with married couples and single individuals without live-in partners. In June 2011, Catholic Charities sued the state of Illinois, seeking to confirm their status as a foster care agency under the new law.
However, on July 8, Department of Children and Family Services Director Erwin McEwen wrote to inform Catholic Charities that their contracts could not be renewed, over an alleged refusal to comply with the civil unions law.
“The Department of Children and Family Services is unable to accept the offer and execute the contracts,” McEwen wrote, “because your agency has made it clear that it does not intend to comply with the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act.”
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn confirmed the decision at a press conference on July 11. He said Catholic Charities had “made a choice” not to “voluntarily participate with the state,” and that the state was “not going back,” according to the Capitol Fax website.
Breen criticized Quinn and the department for an action he described as “reckless” and an “end-run around the court.”
“The legislature made clear that it was protecting religious entities as it passed the civil unions law,” Breen stated.
“Now the executive branch is ignoring the legislative intent of the law, and pushing a partisan political agenda instead of enforcing the laws as they were written and intended by the General Assembly.”
He said the Department of Children and Family Services' decision violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, “which protects firmly held religious beliefs and religious practices of people and organizations.”
Breen also argued that the relationship between the state and a competent long-time contractor was subject to “different rules” than those which would govern a situation where no prior contract existed. And he noted that the state did not have the right to withdraw its contract over a “bad interpretation of state law.”
He drew an analogy between the Department of Children and Family Services, and an employer who terminates an employee on illegal grounds.
“In employment law,” he noted, “you can have an at-will employment relationship with someone. But if you terminate that person for a reason that's illegal, then you can't terminate them.”