Judge Allows Illinois to Cut off Catholic Charities' Foster Care

By Benjamin Mann

SPRINGFIELD, IL -- An Illinois judge has ruled that the state has the right to end its foster care partnership with Catholic Charities in four dioceses, despite the Church ministry's contention that it was being dropped on religious grounds.

In his August 18 ruling, Illinois Circuit Court Judge John Schmidt held that “no citizen has a recognized legal right to a contract with the government.”

Thus, he explained, the state had no obligation to renew a long-standing arrangement with Catholic Charities in the dioceses, as it had annually for over 40 years.

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But Catholic Charities argued that the state refused to renew the contracts because of the ministry's policy of adopting children only to married couples or single non-cohabiting adults, in keeping with Catholic teaching. Attorneys from the Thomas More Society maintained that Catholic Charities was illegitimately losing its contract due to its exercise of religion.

Illinois' Department of Children and Family Services had previously told Catholic Charities that it was ending the contract over Catholic Charities' alleged refusal to obey the 2011 “Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act,” which established legal privileges for same-sex and opposite-sex couples in civil unions.

Judge Schmidt, however, bypassed that issue in favor of what he said was the more fundamental question: not the reason why the state had chosen to pull the contracts after four decades, but whether the state was obligated to make or renew a contract with Catholic Charities under any circumstances.

And it was that question – which Judge Schmidt saw as both separate from the religious issue, and more basic – that he answered in the negative on Thursday.

“The fact that the Plaintiffs have contracted with the State to provide foster care and adoption services for over forty years does not vest the Plaintiffs with a protected property interest,” Judge Schmidt stated.

“The Plaintiffs invite this Court to extend the term 'legally protected property interest' to those whose state contracts are not renewed. The Court declines this invitation.”

“In sum,” Judge Schmidt held, “the Plaintiffs have failed to show they have a legally recognized property right to renew their contracts. The State may refuse to renew the Plaintiffs' contracts.”

Peoria Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, whose diocese is home to one of the Catholic Charities agencies involved in the lawsuit, expressed disappointment in a response issued the day of the ruling. He stressed Catholic Charities' contention that the state had no legitimate cause to end the contract. 

“We continue to believe we can adhere to our religious principles and operate within Illinois law,” Bishop Jenky said.

He recalled that Catholic Charities has been “one of the lead providers of foster care services in the state,” and observed that “clearly the intent of the civil union law was not to force the state to end these contracts and force the transfer of thousands of children’s cases.”

An appeal against Judge Schmidt's August 18 order is possible. The Thomas More Society said on Thursday that its lawyers were “reviewing the ruling and considering next actions” with Catholic Charities officials.

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