NEW YORK - Catholic Charities in Illinois has served for more than 40 years as a major link in the state’s social service network for poor and neglected children. But now most of the Catholic Charities affiliates in Illinois are closing down rather than comply with a new requirement that says they can no longer receive state money if they turn away same-sex couples as potential foster care and adoptive parents.
For the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, the outcome is a prime example of what they see as an escalating campaign by the government to trample on their religious freedom while expanding the rights of gay people. The idea that religious Americans are now the victims of government-backed persecution is now a frequent theme not just for Catholic bishops, but also for Republican presidential candidates and conservative evangelicals.
“In the name of tolerance, we’re not being tolerated,’’ said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., a civil and canon lawyer who helped drive the church’s losing battle to retain its state contracts for foster care and adoption services.
The Illinois experience indicates that the bishops face formidable opponents who also say they have justice and the Constitution on their side. They include not only gay-rights advocates, but also many religious believers and churches that support gay equality (some Catholic legislators among them). They frame the issue as a matter of civil rights, saying that Catholic Charities was using taxpayer money to discriminate against same-sex couples.
Tim Kee, a teacher in Marion, Ill., who was turned away by Catholic Charities three years ago when he and his longtime partner, Rick Wade, tried to adopt a child, said: “We’re both Catholic, we love our church, but Catholic Charities closed the door to us. To add insult to injury, my tax dollars went to provide discrimination against me.’’
The bishops are engaged in the religious liberty battle on several fronts. They have asked the Obama administration to lift a new requirement that Catholic and other religiously affiliated hospitals, universities, and charity groups cover contraception in their employees’ health plans. A decision has been expected for weeks now.
At the same time, the bishops are protesting the recent denial of a federal contract to provide care for victims of sex-trafficking, saying the decision was anti-Catholic. An official with the Department of Health and Human Services recently told a hearing on Capitol Hill that the bishops’ program was rejected because it did not provide the survivors of sex-trafficking, some of whom are rape victims, with referrals for abortions or contraceptives.
In 2006, Catholic Charities of Boston closed its adoption service after Vatican opposition forced the state’s four Catholic bishops to conclude that the practice had to end.
Critics of the church argue that no group has a constitutional right to a government contract, especially if it refuses to provide required services.
But Anthony R. Picarello Jr., general counsel and associate general secretary of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, disagreed.
“It’s true that the church doesn’t have a First Amendment right to have a government contract,’’ he said, “but it does have a First Amendment right not to be excluded from a contract based on its religious beliefs.’’
The controversy in Illinois began when the state Legislature voted in November 2010 to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples, which the state’s Catholic bishops lobbied against. The legislation was titled “The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act,’’ and Paprocki said he was given the impression that it would not affect state contracts for Catholic Charities and other religious social services.
In New York state, religious groups lobbied for specific exemption language in the same-sex marriage bill. But bishops in Illinois did not negotiate, Paprocki said. “It would have been seen as: We’re going to compromise on the principle as long as we get our exception,’’ he said.