Civil Union Laws Can Spell End of Child Welfare Services for Faith-based Groups

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Most states that have approved same-sex marriage or civil unions have not lost the services of faith-based child welfare providers, but the recent conflict between Illinois and one of its largest religious partners suggests those losses might occur as more states pass such laws.

Illinois has severed ties with five faith-based child welfare providers since the state’s civil union law took effect last month. The groups – five regional affiliates of Catholic Charities – object to licensing unmarried and gay couples as foster or adoptive parents.

Officials in Delaware and Hawaii – which in January will become the sixth and seventh states to allow civil unions – say they do not anticipate similar problems with their faith-based providers. But the state of New York, which recently passed a law to legalize same-sex marriage, could face the same problems as Illinois.

Even states that have tacit agreements with faith-based providers, allowing them to refer same-sex couples to other foster care and adoption agencies, could be forced to abandon those arrangements if a proposed federal law is passed.  The bill, introduced by Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) with 56 co-sponsors, would strip federal funding from any agency that discriminates against any prospective foster or adoptive couple.

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Even before the civil union law, Illinois allowed unmarried couples to serve as foster and adoptive parents, said Department of Children and Family Services spokesman Kendall Marlowe.

He said the department had a longstanding “awkward compromise” with the five Catholic Charities affiliates based in Rockford, Peoria, Joliet, Springfield and Belleville; Lutheran Child & Family Services and Evangelical Child & Family Agency. They acted, under contract with the state of Illinois, as agencies that perform the licensing of foster care and adoptive parents.

The three providers were not asked to license anyone who was not married, but they had to “deflect gay couples by referring them to DCFS or other agencies,” Marlowe said. “Everyone but those three agencies had always been inclusive, so we’ve always had an inclusive system as a whole.”

Combined, the caseload of the Illinois groups involved in the church/state conflict is about 3,500, or about 23 percent, of the 15,000 children in DCFS care.

Just before the law took effect in May, Catholic Charities of Rockford, Ill. – a provider for the state’s northern and central regions on domestic adoptions, long-term foster care and international adoptions – announced that it would cease all of its adoption and foster care services because of the new civil union law. Its existing cases have been transferred to another nonprofit in the state, Youth Service Bureau of Illinois Valley. 

Affiliates of Catholic Charities in Peoria, Joliet and Springfield joined in a lawsuit seeking a court ruling on whether the “awkward compromise” is lawful. The affiliates had informed DCFS that they will stop licensing families until a favorable court ruling or an amendment to the civil union law allows them to refer civilly joined couples to other providers.

Another Catholic Charities affiliate, serving Southern Illinois and based in Belleville, did not join the lawsuit but did stop licensing new families.

“It is the religious practice of Catholic Charities not to place children with unmarried cohabiting couples, whether same sex or opposite sex,” Glenn Van Cura, the executive director of CC-Joliet, said in a letter to the Department of Children and Family Services in early June.

Late last week, as the organizations waited to hear from the courts, DCFS sent a letter to all of the active Catholic Charities providers informing them that their already signed contracts for child welfare services for fiscal 2012 would not be accepted by the state because of their stance concerning the civil unions law.  

Gov. Pat Quinn, when asked this week by local media about the decision, said: “They have a law in Illinois. It’s the civil unions law. I signed it into law. We’re not going back. Any organization that decides that because of the civil unions law that they won’t participate voluntarily in a program, that’s their choice.”

Three of the Catholic Charities affiliates were scheduled to be in court today, seeking to compel the state to honor their contracts.  

Evangelical Child & Family Agency has not challenged the state, and its contract was renewed by DCFS for 2012. Lutheran Child & Family Services CEO Gene Svebakken said his organization “intends to follow the law in the State of Illinois, and will license anyone who’s qualified. If it happens to be a couple of the same sex, we would still participate.”

Lutheran, which started in 1873 as an orphanage, is supported in part by funds from local Lutheran congregations but is not controlled by any of them. Svebakken acknowledged that the organization could lose its status with those congregations as a “social ministry organization” for continuing to work with the state, which might cost it some donor funds.

“For me to say they’re all right with it is not a true statement,” Svebakken said of area church leaders. “We have no intention of getting out of the child welfare business.”

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The situation in Hawaii is somewhat different.  Rather than licensing couples for foster care or adoption, Catholic Charities of Hawaii (CCH) is paid by the Department of Human Services to conduct home studies of prospective foster and adoptive homes.  In the past two years, CCH has performed 529 home studies, according to the department, and 25 of those home studies involved the homes of same-sex couples.

“We do not anticipate future issues with requests to [CCH] related to placements with same-sex couples as a result of the recent passage of Hawaii's civil union law,” DHS spokesman Joseph Perez said in e-mail. “They were already doing placement work in which same-sex couples were involved.”

The organization itself appears less certain. “A position has not been decided within the diocese” on how the state’s civil union law should affect the foster care and adoption services of Catholic Charities of Hawaii, an assistant to CEO Jerry Rauckhorst said in a telephone interview. 

In Delaware, Catholic Charities/Diocese of Wilmington has specialized in licensing adoptive parents for infants for the Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families, but ended its program in June “because it was too expensive to run,” said Paula Savini, director of communications. 

“It had nothing to do with the legislation,” Savini said. “We made this decision awhile ago.”

Catholic Charities maintains its license to work with DSCYF, she said, and will continue to provide pregnancy counseling and support services for birth mothers.

Delaware DSCYF spokeswoman Kelly Bachman  said the agency has two other faith-based providers.

“We haven’t reached out to them” specifically about the new law, Bachman said, but “our department has never discriminated against same-sex couples.”

States that legalized civil unions before Illinois – including Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire and New Jersey – appear to have avoided conflict with faith-based child welfare providers.

“During my tenure, to the best of my recollection, the charities’ agencies continued to serve the system without interruption,” said Covenant House President Kevin Ryan, who was commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families when civil unions were made legal there in 2006.

New Hampshire stopped establishing new civil unions in 2009 when same-sex marriages became legal there. Under both laws, any faith-based group is allowed to decline to provide any service that would require it to acknowledge a form of marriage that conflicts with its religious philosophy.

Although the Illinois civil union law did not contain similar language, the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. David Koehler (D), sought a bill in April that would have amended the civil union law to shield faith-based groups, but it failed in committee.

New York’s Marriage Equality Act, the most recent law to allow same-sex marriage, has provoked considerable debate about the fate of faith-based providers there, especially in the publication Christianity Today.

The language in question states that “Nothing in this article shall be deemed or construed to prohibit any religious or denominational institution or organization … from taking such action as is calculated by such organization to promote the religious principles for which it is established or maintained.”

Jackie LoFaro, spokeswoman for the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York Catholic Charities, said she “hadn’t heard anything at all” yet about the law disrupting the organization’s child welfare services, which include adoption placements, reunification services and boarding homes for youth in foster care.

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But federal lawmakers may have the final word. Stark’s “Every Child Deserves a Family Act,” now in the Ways and Means Committee, would disallow federal funding to agencies involved in foster care and adoption placements that:

-“Deny to any person the opportunity to become an adoptive or a foster parent on the basis of the sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status of the person, or the sexual orientation or gender identity of the child involved.”

-“Delay or deny the placement of a child for adoption or into foster care on the basis of the sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status of any prospective adoptive or foster parent, or the sexual orientation or gender identity of the child.”

-“Require different or additional screenings, processes, or procedures for adoptive or foster placement decisions on the basis of the sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status of the prospective adoptive or foster parent, or the sexual orientation or gender identity of the child involved.”

“While New York’s action on same-sex marriage may leave some doubt about the fate of Catholic social services for children,” wrote Heritage Foundation blogger Chuck Donovan, a former leader of the Family Research Council. “The Stark bill removes all doubt: They’re out.”