A judge in Sangamon County, Illinois has ruled that the state does not have to renew its foster and adoption contracts with Catholic Charities. Illinois ended the over $30 million dollars in annual contracts last month after Catholic Charities said it would refuse to follow the newly passed civil unions law and offer its tax-payer funded services to same-sex couples for "religious reasons." Circuit judge John Schmidt ruled against the dioceses of Joliet, Peoria, and Springfield, saying that ending the contracts did not violate the property rights of Catholic Charities:
"The fact that the Plaintiffs have contracted with the State to provide foster care and adoption services for over forty years does not vest the Plaintiffs with a protected property interest. The State may refuse to renew the Plaintfiffs' contracts.
No citizen has a recognized legal right to a contract with the government."
The judge stopped short, however, of addressing the core issue of whether a state contractor (which Catholic Charities is since they receive millions in tax dollars) has the right to refuse service to gays and lesbians under the state's new civil unions law. He also side-stepped any religious freedom questions and based his ruling solely on property and contractual rights.
Catholic Charities lawyer Thomas Brejcha claimed that the DCFS decision not to renew contracts was illegal under religious freedom protections and that they had a right to provide services without "compromising their beliefs on homosexuality and marriage." Catholic Charities also said that after their long relationship with the state, they were required to have more notice about the end of the multi-million dollar contracts.
Lawyers for the state and the American Civil Liberties Union argued that Catholic Charities had no right to contracts and that discrimination against gay couples violated Illinois law:
"The state has the freedom to set the limits of its contracts," said Deborah Barnes, an attorney with the Office of the Attorney General. "It wasn't arbitrary and capricious, the ending of this 40-year relationship... the legal landscape has changed."
The Illinois attorney general's office praised the decision, saying it "will allow the state to continue focusing on what's best for the care and well-being of children." Other foster and adoption agencies have already stepped up to provide a smooth transition for the over 2,000 foster children in Catholic Charities care and have vowed to not discriminate against the over 1600 same-sex couples in Illinois who have entered into civil unions. A Catholic Charities spokesperson said the organization is reviewing the decision "and considering next actions."
While I am extremely pleased that roughly 25% of the adoption services paid for by the state and by our tax dollars will now be available to couples in civil unions, there is a larger issue that continues to go unanswered here. We, as a country, have farmed out our most basic services to religious organizations far too much, setting up this battle over civil rights versus religious freedom. Having a religious organization become a state contractor, in essence becoming an arm of the state, creates an untenable situation on all sides. The lines of church and state become not just blurred, but erased.
Civil rights legislation, like relationship recognition for same-sex couples or LGBT employment discrimination protections, are too often forced to carve out broad religious exemptions to "protect" these contractors, lessening their impact and creating a religious-based test for granting services. There are basic rights that must be separated from religious beliefs. We claim to be a country of laws and human rights, yet too often we cede those issues to religious groups. We do this by making them the providers of services themselves, funded by our tax dollars, then giving them loopholes from following the laws we pass.
Education, adoption services, feeding the poor, providing health care, and many other services have all been farmed out to religious organizations like Catholic Charities, setting up these legal battles over what should be government-funded and run services provided equally to all. As the legal rights for LGBT people and the general public's opinion move further in the direction of equality, we must keep working to separate these basic services from the religious entanglements we have accepted for far too long. Otherwise, our legal accomplishments for equality will come with huge caveats that leave them weaker and open for "exceptions."