By Barton Lorimor
SPRINGFIELD, Ill (Reuters) - Illinois can sever ties to Catholic charities that provide foster and adoption services for the state if the groups discriminate against unmarried and gay couples when placing children, a judge ruled on Thursday.
Catholic charity groups had sued in June to prevent Illinois from canceling their contracts to provide child services shortly after a state law took effect legalizing same-sex civil unions and after the attorney general opened a probe into the groups' policies.
For years, the charities have been part of a network of private child welfare agencies paid by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to help find foster and adoptive homes for children in the state in need of temporary or permanent care.
The lawsuit had asked the court to rule that the charities' long-standing policy of not placing children with unmarried couples, gay or straight, was consistent with Illinois law, including the measure legalizing gay civil unions.
The suit, by groups affiliated with the Catholic dioceses of Springfield, Peoria and Joliet, also asked the court to block Illinois from canceling contracts they had held for four decades without more extensive judicial review.
But Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge John Schmidt ruled state officials were free to cancel the annual contracts.
"No citizen has a legally recognized right to a contract with the government," Schmidt said. "The fact that the plaintiffs have contracted with the state to provide foster care and adoption services for over 40 years does not vest the plaintiffs with a protected property interest."
FOLLOWING THE LAW
The Illinois attorney general's office welcomed the ruling, with spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler saying it would ensure that the state's laws would be followed.
But Catholic groups blasted the decision.
Bishop Daniel Jenky, the head of the Diocese of Peoria, said in a statement that the unwillingness of DCFS to make an exception for religious groups suggested that "important elements of the political establishment in the state of Illinois are now basically at war with the Catholic community and seem to be destroying their institutions."
Kendall Marlowe, deputy director of DCFS, said Catholic Charities has been one of the better quality care providers in Illinois, but that does not excuse them from following state law.
"We don't want to see them leave the field, but the law has changed in Illinois and all child welfare agencies have to respect civil unions," he said.
"While it may be unfortunate that we have to make this transition, we will be able to make this transition without significant disruption for these children."
Of the 15,400 children in foster care in Illinois, more than 2,000 were housed through Catholic Charities.
Marlowe said the state should be able to place those children into new foster homes by the fall. The children would be moved to homes licensed by the 45 other private agencies with whom the state works.
(Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Writing by James B. Kelleher; editing by Cynthia Johnston)