National Catholic Register


Illinois' Latest Battleground for Religious Liberty

BY Gerald J. Russello

July 17-30, 2011 Issue | Posted 7/8/11 at 4:02 PM


The next stage in the battle for religious liberty has begun, and it is not pretty.

Three Illinois dioceses are asking an Illinois court whether they can continue their practice of placing children with foster care or adoptive families, in the face of a law designed to either drive them out of continuing that charitable work or force them to compromise their Catholic principles.

In June, Illinois passed the misleadingly named Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, which legalized same-sex civil unions. Even before the law went into effect, however, the Illinois attorney general, who happens to be Catholic, sent a letter to three Catholic dioceses who still provide adoption services that they were suspected of discriminating in their placements against same-sex couples in supposed violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act, which forbids such discrimination.

The three dioceses — Peoria, Springfield and Joliet — have challenged the state in court, asking that their practices be declared exempt under the Human Rights Act. That challenge is being met not only by the state, but by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which under a federal court order is the administrator of all foster-care services in the state.

This is only another chapter in the continuing series of battles to exclude the Church completely from providing services deemed incompatible with secular norms. Nor are the enemies of the Church particularly subtle about it. As the Church is usually the largest non-government provider of special services such as adoption in most states, any law that does not include exemptions for religious conduct by necessity will harm the Church.

Massachusetts has already seen its Catholic adoption agencies close because of a similar attack. Similar actions are being mounted in the health-care arena, to force Catholic hospitals to perform or provide services contrary to their beliefs.

The question here is not really the constitutionality or appropriateness of same-sex civil unions. In a secular society with no official religion such as the United States, the democratic processes can establish whatever rights and obligations among individuals they choose. However, what legislators cannot do — and indeed what the Constitution is intended to protect — are those rights that precede civil society. The most important of these rights is the freedom to practice religious faith as one sees fit without coercion.

Laws such as those in Illinois, and now soon New York, do not respect this Constitution tradition. In their place they enshrine a vision of pure equality, but one of a particularly damaging sort.

This equality is not the principle that state institutions, for example, should favor no one because of their race or religion, but provide services to all. This equality forces all private institutions and individuals, including religious believers, to one approved standard of conduct. That such a standard inflicts damage on religious liberty is simply not considered.

Proponents of the law implicitly acknowledge this. As the Register has reported, the head of the ACLU’s Children’s Initiative in Illinois does not care about religious freedom. He is quoted as saying, “Our only issue is what’s right for the child, not the religious values of any agency.” This is wrongheaded on a number of accounts, not the least of which is if the dioceses close their adoption services because of the law: How does that help children? How have the children in Massachusetts benefited from an ideological devotion to equality?

In a time of significant budget shortfalls, one would think legislators and those putatively interested in helping the less fortunate would want more ways to help, rather than to foreclose them through legislation that attacks religious belief. One cannot help but conclude Mr. Benjamin Wolf and his allies would prefer to see the Church close her doors than have it as a separate avenue to help real children.

Unfortunately, Mr. Wolf’s view reflects a common misperception about religion held by many elites. “Values” are not abstractions and cannot be put away simply when inconvenient.

Catholics, like others, are meant to live their faith through action. Indeed, the great Catholic social-service agencies exist only because of the inspiration of the Gospel and the belief that we are enjoined to help those in need. This is a far more fundamental understanding of religion than empty talk of “values.”

And yet that shallow language has infected many Catholic politicians, who do not understand that religious freedom can be broached by friendly-sounding words, such as “equality”; there is no safety in such secular language for religious believers who actually seek to live their faith. Catholic politicians should be ashamed for not seeing this language for what it is, and they should instead advocate for the constitutional protection of faith.

Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman (