A Sangamon County judge ruled Thursday that the state can decline to renew its contracts with Catholic Charities in Illinois to provide publicly funded foster care and adoption services, meaning the process of transferring children to other social service agencies can proceed.In a packed courtroom just one day earlier, lawyers for Catholic Charities urged Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt to prevent the state from suddenly severing a partnership that has funded foster care and adoption services in Illinois for four decades.
But Schmidt wrote in his ruling released Thursday that the longevity of the relationship between the state and Catholic Charities in Joliet, Peoria, Springfield and Belleville did not entitle them to automatic renewal of their contracts.
"No citizen has a recognized legal right to a contract with the government," Schmidt wrote.
Since March, state officials have been investigating whether religious agencies that receive public funds to license foster care parents are breaking anti-discrimination laws if they turn away openly gay parents.
In discussions after the civil union bill went into effect in June, Catholic Charities told the state that accommodating prospective foster parents in civil unions would violate Catholic Church teaching that defines marriage between a man and a woman.
Pointing to a clause in the Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act that they believe protects religious institutions that don't recognize civil unions, the agencies said they would refer those couples elsewhere and only license married couples and single parents living alone.
But lawyers for the Illinois attorney general said that exemption only shields religious clergy who don't want to officiate at civil unions. The policy of Catholic Charities violates state anti-discrimination laws that demand couples in civil unions be treated the same as married couples, they said.
Schmidt's ruling avoided the religious freedom issue. Instead he focused on whether the state violated the property rights of Catholic Charities when it declined to sign new contracts for the next fiscal year. Previous contracts expired June 30.
Tom Brejcha, the lawyer for Catholic Charities, said he likely would ask Schmidt to reconsider the issue of religious liberty, which he believes is more relevant than property rights. Brejcha also said he likely would ask the state to agree to a stay of the judge's order until all appeals are exhausted. Such a stay would delay the transfer of about 2,200 children in Catholic Charities' care to new child welfare agencies.
"There's a lot to argue about here," Brejcha said. "The exercise of religion can not be substantially burdened. … That alone could carry the case for Catholic Charities. A lot of these people involved feel they are compelled by their faith. … The burden is pretty substantial."
Casey Teckenbrock, of Herrin, said he and his wife expect any transition to delay the adoption of their foster daughter. But after that is complete, they likely will cease to be foster parents for Catholic Social Services of Southern Illinois in the Diocese of Belleville.
"If the state doesn't respect our morals, then we don't want to do work for them," Casey Teckenbrock said. "This will be a disaster for the 2,000 kids in foster care."
Benjamin Wolf, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who represents juvenile state wards as part of a court-monitored consent decree with the state Department of Child and Family Services, said the process of transferring children should begin immediately.
"We need Catholic Charities to cooperate with us," Wolf said. "We should start the process immediately but recognize that it may take some time. I would agree to a careful, orderly process if that takes several months to make sure kids stay in their foster homes. The time frame should depend on how it helps children."
Kendall Marlowe, a spokesman for DCFS, said the transition indeed could take months. He said the judge's order doesn't mean children will be moved tomorrow.
"We've learned from every transition that we've ever done," he said. "It's in the best interest of children that we have an orderly transition. DCFS will not be taking any precipitous action."