Bishops Say Rules on Gay Parents Limit Freedom of Religion

Roman Catholic bishops in Illinois have shuttered most of the Catholic Charities affiliates in the state rather than comply with a new requirement that says they must consider same-sex couples as potential foster-care and adoptive parents if they want to receive state money. The charities have served for more than 40 years as a major link in the state’s social service network for poor and neglected children.

The bishops have followed colleagues in Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts who had jettisoned their adoption services rather than comply with nondiscrimination laws.

For the nation’s Catholic bishops, the Illinois requirement 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 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 claim to 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.

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 United States 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 Bishop 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, Bishop Paprocki said.

“It would have been seen as, ‘We’re going to compromise on the principle as long as we get our exception.’ We didn’t want it to be seen as buying our support,” he said.

Catholic Charities is one of the nation’s most extensive social service networks, serving more than 10 million poor adults and children of many faiths across the country. It is made up of local affiliates that answer to local bishops and dioceses, but much of its revenue comes from the government. Catholic Charities affiliates received a total of nearly $2.9 billion a year from the government in 2010, about 62 percent of its annual revenue of $4.67 billion. Only 3 percent came from churches in the diocese (the rest came from in-kind contributions, investments, program fees and community donations).

In Illinois, Catholic Charities in five of the six state dioceses had grown dependent on foster care contracts, receiving 60 percent to 92 percent of their revenues from the state, according to affidavits by the charities’ directors. (Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Chicago pulled out of foster care services in 2007 because of problems with its insurance provider.)

When the contracts came up for renewal in June, the state attorney general, along with the legal staff in the governor’s office and the Department of Children and Family Services, decided that the religious providers on state contracts would no longer be able to reject same-sex couples, said Kendall Marlowe, a spokesman for the department.

The Catholic providers offered to refer same-sex couples to other agencies (as they had been doing for unmarried couples), but that was not acceptable to the state, Mr. Marlowe said. “Separate but equal was not a sufficient solution on other civil rights issues in the past either,” he said.

Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Rockford decided at that point to get out of the foster care business. But the bishops in Springfield, Peoria, Joliet and Belleville decided to fight, filing a lawsuit against the state.

Taking a completely different tack was the agency affiliated with the conservative Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, which, like the Catholic Church, does not sanction same-sex relationships. Gene Svebakken, president and chief executive of the agency, Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois, visited all seven pastoral conferences in his state and explained that the best option was to compromise and continue caring for the children.

“We’ve been around 140 years, and if we didn’t follow the law we’d go out of business,” Mr. Svebakken said. “We believe it’s God-pleasing to serve these kids, and we know we do a good job.”

In August, Judge John Schmidt, a circuit judge in Sangamon County, ruled against Catholic Charities, saying, “No citizen has a recognized legal right to a contract with the government.” He did not address the religious liberty claims, ruling only that the state did not violate the church’s property rights.

Three of the dioceses filed an appeal, but in November filed a motion to dismiss their lawsuit. The Dioceses of Peoria and Belleville are spinning off their state-financed social services, with the caseworkers, top executives and foster children all moving to new nonprofits that will no longer be affiliated with either diocese.

Gary Huelsmann, executive director of Catholic Social Services of Southern Illinois, in the Belleville Diocese, said the decision was excruciating for everyone.

“We have 600 children abused and neglected in an area where there are hardly any providers,” he said. “Us going out of business would have been detrimental to these children, and that’s a sin, too.”

The work will be carried on, but the Catholic Church’s seminal, historic connection with it has been severed, noted Mr. Marlowe, the spokesman for the state’s child welfare agency. “The child welfare system that Catholic Charities helped build,” he said, “is now strong enough to survive their departure.”

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For U.S. bishops, economic justice isn’t on the agenda

Catholic leaders, meeting in Baltimore this week, fail to put society’s main problems front and center

At a time of staggering poverty, rampant unemployment and growing income inequality, Catholic bishops will gather for a national meeting in Baltimore today and remain largely silent about these profound moral issues. A recent Catholic News Service headline about the meeting — “Bishops’ agenda more devoted to internal matters than societal ills” — is a disappointing snapshot for a church that has long been a powerful voice for economic justice.

The U.S. bishops’ relative silence contrasts with a recent Vatican document that urges stronger regulation of the financial sector and a more just distribution of wealth. Urging reforms to the left of even the most liberal Democrat in Congress, the Vatican spoke in stark terms about a global financial system that is unhinged from moral values. It’s a thoughtful critique of free-market fundamentalism, in keeping with centuries of Catholic teaching as articulated by several popes. A Vatican cardinal even acknowledged that the “basic sentiment” behind the Occupy Wall Street movement aligns with Catholic values on the need for ethical corporate practices and humane financial systems.

Twenty-five years ago this month, Catholic bishops were anything but quiet. They helped drive attention to poor and working families with a landmark pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All,” that offered a subtle but sober critique of the Reagan administration’s embrace of tax cuts for the rich and draconian cuts to government protections for the poor. The bishops spoke not as policymakers but as moral leaders in touch with the needs of the unemployed and concerned about conservative political leaders’ efforts to strip workers of basic union rights. As a longtime staff member at the U.S. bishops’ conference, I was so proud of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and his colleagues, who insisted that a Catholic vision for human dignity did not stop with concern for the unborn but must include a commitment to economic fairness, peace, care for the environment and opposition to the death penalty.

Where are the bishops’ priorities today? In recent years, church leaders have opposed historic health care reform, lashed out at the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Barack Obama to give a commencement address, and publicly chastised pro-choice Catholic politicians even as they give a pass to Catholic lawmakers who push economic policies antithetical to Catholic teaching about the common good. The bishops’ decades of advocacy for comprehensive health care took a detour last year when they opposed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act because of concerns it would provide taxpayer funding of abortion — a flawed policy analysis, according to independent experts, some pro-life lawmakers and even the Catholic Health Association.

In recent weeks, the bishops have augmented their campaign against same-sex marriage, appointing a “defense of marriage specialist” to a top position at the U.S. bishops’ conference, and challenged the Obama administration to create a stronger exemption for Catholic organizations that oppose insurance coverage of contraception.

These are important issues, properly addressed by the bishops. However, at a time of economic crisis and growing anti-government ideology embodied by the tea party, Catholic bishops would do well to once again offer a compelling moral response to radical individualism and unbridled capitalism.

Most Americans probably don’t know that Catholic bishops helped lay the groundwork for the New Deal as far back as 1919, when they advocated for a minimum wage and insurance for the elderly, disabled and unemployed. Much of this proud legacy is under threat today from lawmakers, including prominent Catholics like House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan, who think tax breaks for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans are more important than funding nutrition programs for low-income women and children.

The U.S. bishops deserve credit for their participation in an interfaith coalition defending government safety-net programs that save lives and provide a measure of dignity to the most vulnerable. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the bishops’ conference, was right to recently urge pastors to address poverty from the pulpit. And the bishops’ national anti-poverty initiative, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, is a vital resource that helps community-based organizations empower those living on the margins of society. But I fear the church’s revered social justice witness is being crowded out by divisive culture-war battles at a time when Americans need a stronger moral message about the dignity of work and economic justice for all.

A new generation of bishops must find their voice.

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