New Law Leads to Catholic Charities Casualty in Illinois

One agency breaks from diocese in order to continue adoptions and foster-care placement under civil union law, which prohibits discrimination against same-sex couples.

Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Ill.
Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Ill. (photo: Diocese of Belleville)

CHICAGO — Since the 1920s, Catholic Charities of Illinois has contracted with the state to provide foster care and adoption services.

Now, Catholic Charities in the state has shuttered that part of its program after its legal challenge to the state’s new civil union law came to naught.

The law, which took effect on June 1, grants same sex couples “civil union” status and includes them as a protected group under state anti-discrimination statutes. That mean all Illinois foster care and adoption agencies must be willing to place children with same-sex couples, a violation of Catholic policy.

While the new law has forced Catholic Charities agencies affiliated with dioceses in Illinois to leave the foster care/adoption business, one former Church agency — Catholic Social Services of Southern Illinois — has been spun off as a new entity, unaffiliated with the Church. With the same staff once employed by the Diocese of Belleville,  the newly-named “Christian Social Services of Illinois”  will operate independently. 

Affiliated with the diocese since 1947, the agency has been a majority Catholic-run institution, serving a minority Catholic population in rural Illinois.

“This is not something that [Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville] wanted to do or wished to have had happen,” said Gary Huelsmann, the former executive director of Catholic Social Services of Southern Illinois and the new head of the Christian Social Services of Illinois. “I’m sick to my stomach about this, but we were caught between a rock and a hard place. The intent of the law should have allowed us to continue to do things as we have done: to serve all people with dignity and respect.”

Before the passage of the new law, same-sex and other non-married couples were referred to non-Catholic agencies.

Huelsmann describes the decision as a “heartrending” but prudent solution for protecting 600 foster-care clients. The agency received $9.5 million in state funds to supervise the care of those children, while the diocese provided just $70,000 in subsidies.

“It was much easier to replace the $70,000 the diocese provided vs. the $9.5 million from the foster-care program alone,” he said. Discontinuing the foster care and adoptive services, he added, would have “been catastrophic for the agency,” making for a “domino effect that would have hurt everyone we serve,” from aiding impoverished elderly folks to helping abused children find good homes.

“Our [nearly 200] employees are tremendously dedicated,” he said. “Why would we want to disrupt everything good they are doing? Why should our clients who have nothing to do with foster care be harmed? We’re trying to do the Christian thing under hard circumstances. There are a million moving parts when it comes to foster care. One piece isn’t connected to the values of the Church, and because of that one itty-bitty part, we’re forced to separate from the diocese. It’s incredibly sad.

Huelsmann advocated for the changed status “because I saw little value in taking such a strong stance that the whole agency would disintegrate,” he said. He added that “some of our employees are not Catholic and most of our clients are not” in an impoverished part of the state where Catholic Charities played a more significant role than any other social-service provider.

Anguishing Search for Options

Bishop Braxton could not give his imprimatur to the change.

In a published interview, Bishop Braxton stressed that “every diocese in Illinois that provided these services looked for solutions and sought to challenge this law.” The legislation was passed last December by the lame-duck, Democrat-controlled state Legislature along a strictly party-line vote, then championed by the governor, Pat Quinn, a Catholic.

“But while the Dioceses of Joliet and Springfield did not depend so heavily on state funds, Belleville is poor,” Bishop Braxton said in the interview, during the general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. “We have a large geographic area with a relatively small population.”

Bishop Braxton expressed anguish as he described the search for options. He noted that the agency’s staff is primarily Catholic and did not want to separate from the diocese, but they feared that the state would be unable to manage the sudden increase in foster-care cases.

“The state programs are not as strong as our program,” he said, acknowledging that the staff was also concerned about holding onto their jobs.

When the agency staff determined that the only way to maintain their social services was to separate from the diocese and forfeit its Catholic title, they sought his approval. “But I told them that while I understood their problem, I could not approve or have anything to do with this new entity. They wanted to call it ‘Christian,’ but I told them that they would have no long-term control over what the agency might become, once it was cut off from the diocese.”

Meanwhile, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., expressed hope that good may come out of bad political and judicial rulings.

“The silver lining of this decision is that our Catholic Charities going forward will be able to focus on being more Catholic and more charitable,” he told Catholic News Agency, “while less dependent on government funding and less encumbered by intrusive state policies.”

Look at the Agenda

The Chicago-based Thomas More Society represented the Catholic Charities affiliates of three Illinois dioceses, charging that the new civil union law should exempt Catholic Charities’ foster care and adoptive services from accommodating immoral situations, heterosexual as well as homosexual. Their case was just rendered moot, however, because “the clock ran out on our case” contesting state Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s position that Catholic Charities would have to service civil union couples, said Peter Breen, the Thomas More Society’s executive director. “We never had a court rule that no religious-freedom protections were afforded in the civil union law, despite assurances to the contrary before the law was passed. The court merely held that the executive branch could run roughshod over such protections, if they even existed.”

Breen said the bishops’ “brave stand” against the state of Illinois changed public perception and opinion of the civil union law: that it was not a matter of justice, but legislation agenda-driven by the homosexual lobby. And although he is unsure how the case might continue in Illinois — it is almost a moot point where Catholic Charities is concerned, he said, because the cases have been given to other agencies and employees laid off — he is hopeful that making a stand in Illinois will educate others.

“Even people in favor of civil unions are saying this isn’t what they wanted to happen,” he said. “I hope this causes people to look again at the agenda of those pressing for same-sex ‘marriages’ and civil unions and hopefully cause people in other states considering such legislation to do the same. The Thomas More Society stands ready to provide help in other states considering such laws, and we’ll educate legislators about the alleged religious protections that may not be worth the paper they’re written upon.”

Register correspondent Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.