As one Catholic Charities official sees it, it's simply a matter of protecting child welfare.
In what may be an unprecedented lawsuit, three Illinois Catholic Charities agencies are demanding that they be exempted under state law from licensing unmarried couples for adoption or foster care. And same-sex couples who may have recently entered into civil unions are, by all accounts, their greatest sticking point.
Last week Catholic Charities, with the dioceses of Peoria and Joliet, sent a letter to state officials announcing that they had suspended licensing of new adoptive or foster parents. The civil unions bill, signed into law in January by Illinois governor Pat Quinn, became effective June 1.
Anthony Riordan, chief operating officer of Catholic Charities of Peoria, told The Advocate that the lawsuit, filed Tuesday, became necessary because of a "lack of clarity" over whether his agency would be required to accommodate unmarried couples.
"We're filing suit because of our commitment to children and families in this state," he said. "We provide foster-care service for roughly one out of five children in the state of Illinois. If we were forced out, in our view, the worst-case scenario would be pretty devastating to the child welfare system."
That the Catholic Charities adoption contracts in question are not private but rather funded to the tune of a reported $30 million annually by the state is not ultimately what this is about, he argued. "I think it's certainly a reasonable point: If you receive state funds, you have to follow the directives and the rules of the state," Riordan said. "But our position is that faith-based charities have religious liberties and certain rights of conscience."
In the suit, Catholic Charities for the dioceses of Springfield, Joliet, and Peoria claim that their state-funded adoption services are exempt from the civil unions law under provisions of the legislation as well as existing state religious freedom protections.
"Same sex couples' and unmarried cohabiting couples' application for adoption or foster care referrals could be fully and adequately serviced and accommodated (as they are now) by [the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services] referring them to other providers which do not share [our] conscientious religious objections," attorneys for the dioceses wrote in their complaint.
"On the other hand, the harm to plaintiffs and to the poor, needy and vulnerable third parties whom they serve, should no injunctive relief issue, would be severe and ... even unconscionable," they wrote.
The suit was prompted in part by a March 8 letter from Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan's office inquiring into Catholic Charities of Springfield's existing policies and whether they violate the law.
"Please be advised that the Illinois Human Rights Act makes it a civil rights violation for any person to 'deny or refuse to another the full and equal enjoyment of facilities, goods, or services of any public place of accommodation' on the basis of unlawful discrimination," which includes sexual orientation and marital status as protected characteristics, the letter read in part.
In a Tuesday statement, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office said of the suit, "Organizations that receive taxpayer funding to provide public services must comply with the law. Unfortunately, instead of working with the state to ensure compliance with child protection and civil rights laws, the dioceses have opted to go to court."
Filed on behalf of the dioceses by attorneys from the Thomas More Society in Chicago, the lawsuit comes after the announcement late last month that Catholic Charities in Rockford was pulling out of adoption services entirely -- a decision described by one source as a possible "trial balloon" from the church to put pressure on the state assembly and attorney general's office. But "there's nothing to indicate that the governor or the assembly is interested in providing an exemption" for religious groups contracted by the state for adoption services, the source said.
Meanwhile, Catholic Charities' claim that Illinois is undermining its religious freedom in state adoption contracts has been criticized by several national LGBT legal and advocacy groups.
"It's outrageous," said Camilla Taylor, national marriage project director for Lambda Legal. "They're asking permission to put their desire to discriminate ahead of the welfare of children in state care. And they're asking to do this at taxpayer expense. It's a tragic result for children."
Taylor said her organization is currently reviewing the legal complaint and that the lawsuit may involve "participation in some manner" by Lambda, but she couldn't yet specify what that may be.
Kendall Marlowe, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, declined to comment on the merits of the suit, but said, "Discrimination has no place in child welfare." He said his agency is currently working to handle some 350 cases following Rockford's decision to pull out of adoption services, adding that the process may take months to complete.
"This is an incredibly sad day for the children of Illinois who remain in foster care," Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Family Equality Council, said Tuesday. "This type of maneuvering may serve the interests of Catholic Charities, but it's abundantly clear that it does not serve the best interests of these kids who want nothing more than to have permanency in their lives."
Chrisler's organization is a supporter of the federal Every Child Deserves a Family Act, which would prohibit discrimination in adoption and foster-care placements on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status. The bill has been criticized by social conservative groups for its perceived attack on religious liberties.
"I want to be clear about one thing: If there are groups that would choose to deny children a home because of political agendas, then we must replace them with compassionate child placement agencies that are focused squarely on doing what's best for kids," Chrisler said.
Other Catholic Charities agencies have ended adoption services in recent years rather than comply with state nondiscrimination laws. In 2006, Catholic Charities of Massachusetts pulled out of adoptions, saying that state law would have forced the organization to place children with gay couples. That decision is frequently cited by antigay activists as an example of marriage equality's dangerous implications.
Seven members of the Catholic Charities Board of Massachusetts resigned after the organization had sought an exemption from the law. Those who left the board called the move a display of "profound disrespect" to gay couples.