Disappointment, sadness over ruling against Catholic Charities

Photo Caption: The Sangamon County Complex in Springfield was the scene of a hearing Aug. 17 before Seventh Judicial Circuit Judge John Schmidt, who issued his ruling the following day. — Catholic Post photo

By: By Tom Dermody

A Sangamon County Circuit Judge ruled Aug. 18 that the State of Illinois may refuse to renew its foster care and adoption services contracts with Catholic Charities in four Illinois dioceses, including the Diocese of Peoria. The decision could potentially impact thousands of children and hundreds of Catholic Charities employees.

In a strongly worded response hours after the ruling, Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, said he was “extremely disappointed” to learn of the decision by Judge John Schmidt. Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield called it “a sad day for the children of Illinois.”

The ruling came one day after a hearing in Springfield on an ongoing dispute between Catholic Charities in the dioceses of Belleville, Joliet, Peoria and Springfield and the state over the legislative intent of the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, which took effect June 1.

Officials in the affected dioceses are reviewing Judge Schmidt’s ruling to determine a future course of action.

“Clearly the intent of the civil union law was not to force the state to end these contracts and force the transfer of thousands of children’s cases,” said Bishop Jenky. Catholic Charities is one of the lead providers of foster care services in the state, he noted, and have been “valued partners for decades.”

“We continue to believe we can adhere to our religious principles and operate within Illinois law,” said Bishop Jenky.

The legal issue stems from Catholic Charities’ longstanding practice that prospective adoptive and foster care parents who are cohabiting — regardless of sexual orientation — be referred to other agencies or the Department of Children and Family Services. Lawyers for the Illinois Attorney General argue that policy now violates state anti-discrimination laws that accommodate gay and lesbian couples in civil unions.

Schmidt’s summary judgment order did not address those issues or the intent of the new civil union legislation. Rather, it focused on whether the state could refuse to renew Catholic Charities’ contracts, as the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services did in early July. Schmidt had temporarily reinstated the $30 million in contracts while he considered the case.

“In sum, (Catholic Charities) have failed to show they have a legally recognized property right to renew their contracts,” wrote Schmidt.

Attorneys from the Chicago-based Thomas More Society representing the dioceses had argued Wednesday that, because Catholic Charities had contracted with the state to provide foster care and adoptions services for more than 40 years, a “protected property interest” is involved. The “expectation that we would continue” shaped decisions at the four agencies, said chief counsel Thomas Brejcha, adding any break in that relationship should not take place without warning and an “opportunity to address specifics.”

“There is no question Catholic Charities is spurred, motivated and sustained by its Gospel mandate,” Brejcha told the court. “They believe it’s a religious mission they shouldn’t walk away from.”

In a statement on its website following Thursday’s ruling, the Thomas More Society said Schmidt “ruled against Illinois Catholic Charities in their pursuit to continue their 100 years of service to Illinois families and children with foster care and adoption services.”

“The ruling does not address Catholic Charities’ contention that the State of Illinois cannot refuse to contract with someone based on that person’s exercise of religion,” the statement noted, adding Society attorneys are considering next actions with Catholic Charities.

Meanwhile, Bishop Jenky pointed out that religious accommodations have been granted in states such as New York and Rhode Island regarding their establishments of civil unions. His Aug. 18 statement expressed sadness that “important elements of the political establishment in the state of Illinois are now basically at war with the Catholic community and seem to be destroying their institutions.”

Bishop Paprocki of Springfield said “the State of Illinois is actively taking steps to push Catholic Charities . . . . out of foster care services.”

“The message from the State of Illinois is simple,” said Bishop Paprocki. “Organizations that only place children in accord with their religious beliefs are barred from state contracts — Catholics need not apply.”

Those attending Wednesday’s hearing on behalf of the Diocese of Peoria included Patricia Gibson, chancellor, and Catholic Charities officials including Sister Ana Pia Cordua, SCTJM, president and director of mission and ministry; Tricia Fox, chief executive officer; and Tony Riordan, chief operating officer.

After the hearing, Riordan said Catholic Charities caseworkers and foster parents were in a stressful “limbo” awaiting the ruling, but that they remain “very focused” on providing the best service.

The full text of Judge Schmidt’s ruling is found here.

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