Catholics in Illinois are fighting to protect their religious rights as a new civil unions law in the state could shut down Catholic adoption and foster care programs.
“We still need a change in Illinois law to give us some protection in providing foster care and adoption services in the state,” Illinois Catholic Conference head Robert Gilligan told CNA.
“We're trying to motivate legislators to act and letting people know we're serious about this.”
A press conference was held in Springfield on May 4 with leaders from the Catholic conference and Illinois' Catholic Charities to raise awareness on the issue and “send a clear message to the citizens of the state,” Gilligan said.
On June 1, Illinois is slated to implement a civil unions law, which will give legal rights and recognition to same-sex or unmarried opposite-sex couples.
In an effort to allow faith-based organizations to continue operating according to their beliefs, local congressmen proposed recent legislation to protect the groups' religious liberty.
However, the measure – titled SB 1123 – was defeated by a one-vote margin when it came before state senators on April 13. The rejection of the bill could cause public funding to be stripped from groups who believe that children should be given homes with one married, heterosexual couple or one single individual.
Gilligan said via phone on May 5 that he believes the legislation could be minimally amended and pass through without difficulty.
He explained that the bill had two provisions, one allowing religious groups to refer same-sex or cohabitating couples to secular agencies and one that would allow for county clerks to charge fees to couples seeking a civil unions license.
Gilligan said that one of the lawmakers who voted against the bill later expressed confusion over the fee aspect of the legislation, which could easily be changed.
“We now believe we have the votes to pass this,” he said.
“There's been no action” so far by state legislators, he added. “By going public with this we wanted to make sure people know we're being clear as possible.”
The threat of a Catholic adoption program shutdown in Illinois is being taken seriously by the local faith community, given recent forced closures in Washington, D.C. and in England and Wales.
Last February, Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C. halted its foster care and adoption services after it was deemed ineligible for public funding over its stance against the district's same-sex “marriage” law.
Catholic adoption programs in England and Wales faced a similar fate. Last August, a local commission ruled that the last remaining agency, Catholic Care, was not justified in its refusal to place children with same-sex couples because of its religious beliefs.
“They're really hurting the children – at the end of the day, that's who is really getting hurt,” Gilligan told CNA in a previous interview on April 17.
“If we have layoffs, that will be painful, but the real losers – if we can't continue providing this care – are the children.”
Gilligan explained that the state of Illinois has a history of dependence on faith-based organizations.
“It's a shame that the state of Illinois can't recognize that valuable contribution that we have been providing to the citizens of Illinois even before the Department of Children and Family services was established,” he said.
Gilligan recalled that in the 1990s “the department was in disarray, so the state turned to Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish and many good private agencies to help them.”
The state went from having 46,000 children in the foster care system in 1997 to 16,000 today.
“The reason that is, is because the private agencies stepped up to the plate and they cooperated with the state to provide adoptive homes for children that were lingering in foster care far too long,” Gilligan said.
The conference director called it a “tragedy” that the same religious principles held by faith-based agencies that were so helpful to the state in the past could now be rejected under the new civil unions law.