Requirement to consider gay couples for adoption forces Illinois Catholic Charities affiliates to close

After the Illinois state legislature passed a requirement that says adoption and foster-care agencies — to be eligible for state money — must consider same-sex couples as potential foster-care or adoptive parents, the Roman Catholic bishops in Illinois decided to shut down most of the Catholic Charities affiliates in the state. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened: Massachusetts and Washington D.C. both passed similar requirements — and many Catholic Charities affiliates closed down in those states, as well. The New York Times reports:

For the nation’s Catholic bishops, the Illinois requirement is a prime example of what they see as an escalating campaign by the government to trample on their religious freedom while expanding the rights of gay people. The idea that religious Americans are the victims of government-backed persecution is now a frequent theme not just for Catholic bishops, but also for Republican presidential candidates and conservative evangelicals.

“In the name of tolerance, we’re not being tolerated,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., a civil and canon lawyer who helped drive the church’s losing battle to retain its state contracts for foster care and adoption services. …

Critics of the church argue that no group has a constitutional right to a government contract, especially if it refuses to provide required services.

But Anthony R. Picarello Jr., general counsel and associate general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, disagreed. “It’s true that the church doesn’t have a First Amendment right to have a government contract,” he said, “but it does have a First Amendment right not to be excluded from a contract based on its religious beliefs.

This is tough stuff. My instinct is to think that the Illinois requirement does constitute a violation of religious liberty — but I’m not sure. The free exercise of religion clause protects religiously motivated conduct as well as belief (e.g. proselytization, refusing work on one’s sabbath, even sacrificing animals at a worship service), so Catholic Charities is well within its rights to refuse to place children with gay couples and still operate. Because Catholic Charities can’t operate foster care services without a contract with the state, the denial of the contract on the basis of CC’s fidelity to the teaching of the Catholic Church seems like a clear violation of religious freedom. But the mere denial of funding — no matter how heavily dependent CC is on it for its operations — is surely not. Freedom and funding, after all, are not the same.

Either way, though, let’s not forget the broader picture: The decision of the Illinois legislature to initiate the requirement in the first place — knowing it would hamstring Catholic Charities, which provides essential services — demonstrates an appalling willingness to allow an adult agenda — the mainstream acceptance of gay behavior — to supersede children’s interests. The spokesman for the state’s child welfare agency has said he thinks the child welfare system Catholic Charities helped to build is strong enough to withstand CC’s departure. But it’s hard to believe the shuttering of so many CC affiliates won’t make the burden of finding a home for children in need even greater.

Then, too, research suggests the healthiest and most stable environment for a child is to live with a married couple. Of those born to cohabiting parents, the majority see their parents split up before they hit age 16 — and children living with a mother and her unmarried partner are more likely to have behavioral problems and lower academic performance. That Catholic Charities wanted to work to place children in that optimal living environment but now can’t is heartbreaking no matter what the reasoning for the new requirement.

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