Catholic Charities responds on religious freedom, civil unions

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria will continue to seek religious freedom protections for its adoption and foster care programs after an amendment clarifying the rights of faith-based human service agencies in relation to Illinois’ new civil union law failed to make it out of a Senate committee.

“We believe there is a lawful way forward that both respects the civil rights of all individuals as well as the free expression of core religious beliefs,” wrote Tricia C. Fox, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria, in a statement released to area news organizations April 20.

Fox also outlined the history and successes of Catholic Charities’ more than 35-year collaboration with the state in providing adoption and foster care services. She encouraged the public to become aware of the issues involved, and urged all in the debate “to respect one another, to engage each other with sensitivity, and to avoid painful labeling like ‘anti-gay’ or ‘anti-God.'”

(The full text of Fox’s comments, titled “Civil Unions and Faith-Based Agency Rights Can Co-exist,” follows this report.)

The new legislation, which stalled in a Senate Executive Committee on April 13 after a 7-7 vote (one abstention), was a follow-up to the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act. Signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in January, the act codifies rights and equal protection for couples in civil unions. It is set to take effect in June.

Known as Senate Bill 1123, the amendment sought to clarify legislatively the act’s stated intent that “Nothing in this act shall interfere with or regulate the religious practice of any religious body.”

However, opponents have portrayed the legislation and its backers — wrongfully, according to Catholic Charities — as discriminatory toward gay couples.

“SB1123 is not an ‘anti-gay’ or discriminatory amendment, and we would not support it if it were,” said Fox, who had lobbied in Springfield on its behalf along with the Catholic Conference of Illinois, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops.

Instead, said Fox, the amendment simply allows faith-based organizations to “respectfully refer civil union couples to another agency that can process their application. Characterization of this bill as anything else is spurious and inflammatory.”

Catholic Charities accepts adoption and foster care applications from legally married couples and non-cohabiting single individuals. However, if a request is received from an individual in a cohabiting relationship (regardless of sexual orientation), out of respect for church teaching the agency refers them to the Department of Children and Family Services or another licensed child welfare agency in the community.

Fox told The Catholic Post that her April 20 statement was necessitated by “misinformation” that continues to appear in the media regarding the legislation and its effects.

As one example, she cited a claim that SB1123 would “reduce the pool of available foster and adoptive homes to children.”

“Absolutely not true,” said Fox. “Anyone interested in being foster parents could still apply to be a foster parent in Illinois. We would just refer to other agencies.”

The bill also would not infringe on benefits afforded civil union partners under Illinois’ new law, she said, nor disrupt the placements of any children with relatives.

Tony Riordan, chief operating officer for Catholic Charities, said the agency is bringing “all resources to bear” to advocate for the religious liberty of faith-based organizations in the state. “We are confident that ultimately we will be able to continue our mission.”

The Catholic Conference of Illinois also will continue its support.

“Lawmakers are obviously engaged in this issue,” said Robert Gilligan, CCI executive director. “We will continue to seek a resolution that allows Catholic Charities to serve thousands of abused and neglected children in Illinois, and we are hopeful that resolution will be supported moving forward.”

Last year alone, Catholic Charities provided 1,558 children with caring, professional foster family placements and over the last 10 years the agency has found loving families for 2,155 children through its adoption programs.

“Catholic Charities throughout the state are consistently rated as top performers by DCFS in providing permanency, stable foster homes, and protection for children in need,” said Gilligan. “We simply want to continue.”

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CIVIL UNIONS AND FAITH-BASED AGENCY RIGHTS CAN CO-EXIST

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria has collaboratively assisted the State of Illinois with adoption and foster care services for over 35 years. Last year alone, Catholic Charities provided 1,558 children with caring professional foster family placements until they could be safely reunified with their parents or adopted. We found loving families for 149 children through our adoption program. In fact, in the past ten years we have facilitated the adoption placements of 2,155 children. Catholic Charities consistently ranks among the top performers in the state on issues that really matter to children and families; helping children heal from the trauma of abuse and neglect, preventing multiple moves of children to different foster homes, and ultimately resolving the problems that led to placement and reuniting children with their families. Recently there has been significant attention in the media and by various advocacy organizations to a proposed bill amending the “Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act,” the 2010 law that established civil unions in the state of Illinois.

While the original SB1716, the “Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act” provides new rights for couples in civil unions; it also clearly and unequivocally protects the rights of religious organizations to maintain practice in areas of their core beliefs. As challenging or unsettling as it may be for all parties, no matter their position on the issues, we all must fully accept both elements of the law. The law clearly provides protection for both civil unions and for religious freedom. Explicitly it states, “Nothing in this act shall interfere with or regulate the religious practice of any religious body.”

We believe that this law, as written and as intended by its authors, recognizes that equal protection under the law and of religious freedom can coexist, and that this is not a zero sum game of finite or mutually exclusive available rights.

In our pluralistic and diverse democratic society we value and hold undeniable the tenet of accepting differences between individuals or groups while respecting their rights to pursue differing positions. The original SB1716 “Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act” balanced extension of civil liberties while clearly affirming the rights and respect for religious freedom. The amendment bill, SB1123, attempts to clarify this in one area of application ? adoption and foster parent applications processed by faith based agencies.

SB1123 is not an “anti-gay” or discriminatory amendment, and we would not support it if it were. It will not bar anyone from becoming a foster or adoptive parent. It will not reduce the pool of available foster or adoptive parents. It will not disrupt or delay the placements of any children with relatives. Catholic Charities believes that all people should be treated with respect, compassion, and dignity. There is absolutely no mention or screening of sexual preference in our application policies, nor is such language proposed in the SB1123 amendment itself. What SB1123 does do is clarify and preserve the constitutionally protected right of religious practice by such organizations as expressed in their standards for acceptable adoption and foster home placement configurations- single or legally married. Specifically, it allows faith based organizations to respectfully refer civil union couples to another agency who can process their application. Characterization of this bill as anything else is spurious and inflammatory.

Our request is to educate yourself and accept the reality that this is a complicated and nuanced issue. This complexity mirrors the diversity and the often seemingly contradictory principles we hold sacred in society. We believe that this is what makes our society so great- acceptance of differences in a civil manner, coupled with the freedom to pursue one’s beliefs. We believe there is a lawful way forward that both respects the civil rights of all individuals as well as the free expression of core religious beliefs. We urge persons on both sides of the issue to respect one another, to engage each other with sensitivity, and to avoid painful labeling like “anti-gay” or “anti-God.” We also urge that the explicit language and expressed intent of the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act be recognized, and that readers express their support for SB1123 and the reinforcing language it contains.

Tricia C. Fox, M.A.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria, CEO

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