Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Pick and choose laws

The state of Illinois is ending its foster care and adoption contracts with Catholic Charities, a part of the Roman Catholic Church, because the organisation has made it clear that it won’t obey the state’s recent civil union law. I believe the state is right and Catholic Charities is wrong.

In Illinois, any person who wants to be an adoptive or foster parent must first get a foster care license from one of the state’s authorised agencies, like Catholic Charities. The Catholic group says it will only grant such licences to single people not living with a partner or legally married couples. Only opposite-sex couples can marry in Illinois.

The state says that the civil union law requires such agencies to treat civil union couples like a married couple: “That law applies to foster care and adoption services,” the state said in a letter to the agencies (PDF of the letter).

Catholic Charities has filed for an injunction to prevent the termination, of course. Some dioceses have already stopped foster care services entirely, for various reasons.

This story will get wrapped in a blanket of emotion, which will make it hard for people to look at the larger issues. Catholic Charities talks about the roughly 2,000 children whose cases it manages, but the evidence from the dioceses that stopped foster care services shows other agencies take over the caseloads. So, children won’t be disadvantaged.

The larger issue here is whether an organisation receiving taxpayer money to provide services on behalf of the government has the right to pick and choose which laws it will obey. Put that way, most people would say no, they should obey the law like everyone else. However, some people get a bit muddled in their thinking when the organisation is affiliated with or part of a church and seeks to disobey the law on religious grounds. The religious beliefs of churches or their agencies are irrelevant if they’re receiving taxpayer money to provide state services.

Catholic Charities isn’t alone in actively discriminating based on religious beliefs. The Evangelical Child and Family Agency (ECFA) apparently issues foster care licenses only to married, evangelical Christian couples unless a prospective foster parent is a relative. They may be able to get away with that because they seem to be restricting their services to finding foster care for the children of evangelical couples, placing them with evangelical relatives. This is somewhat different from Catholic Charities, which operates in the public sphere and plans to discriminate generally.

Personally, I don’t think that religious organisations should be involved in this at all, and that all such agencies should be secular, like the state whose services they are providing under contract. I also think it’s a colossally bad idea to let organisations decide, based on their religious beliefs, who they will and won’t licence for foster care.

This story has a long way to go before it ends, but the state made the right call. Catholic Charities is wrong to argue that its religious beliefs trump state law. I hope the state’s decision will be upheld.

Update: As expected, a judge has issued a temporary order continuing the contracts with Catholic Charities. As I predicted, the Catholic group has used the “think-of-the-children” defence, breathlessly claiming there would be "irreparable injury" to children, despite the fact that his hasn’t happened in any other place in Illinois where the Catholic Church ended foster care services. A full hearing on the matter will be held in August.

Meanwhile, a Chicago Sun-Times editorial praised Illinois Governor “Quinn’s fine defense of loving couples”:
“No one is diminishing the risks here. These are real children in need of stable, loving families. That’s in part why three of the Catholic Charities agencies sued the state, winning a first victory in court Tuesday in their quest to continue services for non-homosexual couples only. But it’s also why Quinn backed the civil union law in the first place — an acknowledgement that gay couples deserve the same right to build loving families as any other couple.”

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