Catholic Charities in Illinois continues to make news in the wake of the state's passage of the Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, which granted Illinois' same-sex couples some state-level relationship recognition. They already made good on their threat to pull out of foster and adoption services in three diocese so far over the contention they did not want to place children with "same-sex or unmarried couples." Catholic Charities has now filed a lawsuit looking to get a blanket "religious exemption" under state law in how they administer their services.
At the heart of the issue is the over $30 million dollars that Catholic Charities receives from the state of Illinois for foster care and adoption services. This effectively moves them from a private faith-based organization, which does have built-in religious exemptions as the name of the civil unions law implies, to an administrator of state-funded public services. They are essentially acting as an agent of the state.
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 existing state religious freedom protections, despite the public funding of those services. Anthony Riordan, chief operating officer of Catholic Charities of Peoria, laid it out plainly:
"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. But our position is that faith-based charities have religious liberties and certain rights of conscience."
So although they are acting as an arm of the state and providing a state-funded service in the public sphere, they are looking to be able to pick and choose who they provide that service to based on their religious dogma, not state law. This is a radical new expansion of religious exemptions that creates many troubling issues.
The most obvious issue is the use of public funds to discriminate against a swath of people protected by civil laws. By taking more than $30 million dollars in tax money, Catholic Charities enters the realm of state-sponsored public services, not a private religious organization. By allowing the church to ignore the laws of the state in the public sector while using state funds, it in essence uses tax dollars to discriminate. This would be like being turned away from getting a drivers license because the DMV had moral issues with who you are. Catholic Charities has agreed to be a state-sponsored agency by taking huge amounts of money. If you enter the public sector, you must play by the rules and laws of the state.
A more insidious effect is the broad exemptions they are looking for. While they only claim to want the ability to discriminate against same-sex and unmarried couples, the giving of a broad, blanket, self-defined exemption based on a religious organizations "rules of conscious" opens many doors that move beyond the LGBT community. Under their reasoning, Catholic Charities would be able to turn away married couples of other faiths, like Muslim or Jewish couples, since they don't follow their rules of conscious and religious dogma. It also wouldn't be a leap to then say a person who was previously divorced (something not allowed in the Catholic faith) don't meet the religious test of Catholic Charities. The church doesn't recognize second marriages after divorce, so those couples are out as well. Anyone who uses birth control, is an atheist, believes in evolution, hasn't gone through confirmation, or who don't fall under a plethora of other "rules of conscious" and religious beliefs are now free to be cut out of a public, tax dollar funded service.
To be clear, Catholic Charities provides foster care and adoption services for roughly one out of five children in the state of Illinois. That is a huge number of children who would fall under the whims and religious convictions of a church, not state law. It is also a huge number of prospective parents who would be cut out of the system. And allowing this type of opting out of laws would most certainly cause a windfall of like-minded lawsuits and claims in other states.
Along those lines, this type of broad religious exemption installs Catholic Charities as the self-proclaimed decider of who can adopt or foster. As the initial gatekeeper of who can adopt with the ability to exclude whole classes of people, they by default get to choose the pool of potential parents. Instead of using the civil system of courts to decide "the best interest of the child", it allows the church to usurp the ability to choose who should parent. It removes the power of the government to set rules and standards and instead installs a theocracy that decides who is worthy of state services.
Groups like Catholic Charities already have religious exemptions. As a country who has a founding principal of religious freedom, we have always carved out the right of private religious institutions and organizations to think, believe, and act how they see fit. That is true in Illinois and across this nation. What we don't allow is for the religious organizations to move out of the private realm using public funds and make their own laws and rules that affect us all. If we do, what is the point of making secular laws at all?
If you want our money, you follow our laws. It's that simple.