Catholic Charities of Peoria withdraws from lawsuit against Illinois

October 7, 2011

Associated Press

(AP/Seth Perlman)
Lawyer for Catholic Charities Peter Breen exits the Sangamon County Courthouse in Springfield, Ill. in July.

Three Catholic dioceses in Illinois are continuing a court fight over Illinois' new civil unions law, while another is withdrawing from the litigation.

The Catholic Diocese of Peoria announced Thursday it plans to stop providing state-funded services and withdraw from the court battle.  According to the Peoria Star-Journal, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) plans to transfer more than 1,000 from Catholic Charities of Peoria to a new organization, The Center for Youth and Family Services, by January 31st.  However, that organization currently has no director and no state license to handle foster care cases.

Catholic Charities of Peoria isn't the first local arm of the organization to end its contract with DCFS.  In May, Catholic Charities of the Dicocese of Rockford terminated its foster care and adoption services contracts due to the threat of potential litigation.

The litigation stems from the passage of the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, which provides many of the same marital rights and protections to those couples who seek to enter into civil unions, including same sex couples.

Catholic Charities affiliated with the Joliet, Springfield and Belleville dioceses were among the organizations who filed suit asking a judge to determine whether they could refuse to serve same sex couples and unmarried parents seeking adoptions if the agencies continued to receive state funding.

The state claims that's discriminatory and amounts to a violation of the civil unions law.  But the charities argue that religious organizations are except from the provisions of the Illinois Religious Freedom Proteciton and Civil Union Act.

In August, a Sangamon Circuit County Court Judge ruled in favor of the state, but lawyers for the plaintiffs filed an appeal earlier this week.

Bishop Daniel Jenky of the Peoria Diocese says the decision to withdraw from the litigation and from providing state-funded social services was not made lightly.

Bishop Daniel Jenky of the Peoria Diocese said in a statement that the decision to withdraw from the litigation and from providing state-funded social services was not made lightly.

"Public policy and state law, however, have increasingly clashed with church teachings in such a way that we no longer can maintain this partnership as a viable option," Jenky said.

Peoria Catholic Charities' foster care contracts with the state total $15 million to $17 million annually, more than half the budget of the charity, said Patricia Gibson, general counsel for the Peoria Diocese and its charity.

"That's a big hit," Gibson said, and finances didn't play into the decision, Gibson said. Leaders in the diocese saw the opportunity to move all its foster care cases to one new nonprofit group would "minimize disruption in lives, particularly of the children that we serve," Gibson said.

Illinois ended contracts with Catholic Charities in the four dioceses in July because of the organizations' practice of referring unmarried couples to other agencies.

Diocese of Joliet spokesman Doug Delaney issued a statement about the Peoria decision.

"We understand the Diocese of Peoria's frustration with the state of Illinois' stance on foster-care contracts," the statement said. "Each diocese is making its decisions regarding this lawsuit that it finds appropriate to its operations and needs. Due to its own particular circumstances, the Diocese of Peoria has determined not to continue as a party to this appeal. We continue to believe in the merits of our case and remain hopeful that we will prevail on appeal."