SPRINGFIELD -- Catholic Charities will have to wait a while longer to learn if the organization will be allowed to keep its state contracts for adoptive and foster care services.

SPRINGFIELD -- Catholic Charities will have to wait a while longer to learn if the organization will be allowed to keep its state contracts for adoptive and foster care services.


Sangamon County Judge John Schmidt did not make an immediate ruling Wednesday in the case, in which Catholic Charities sued the Department of Children and Family Services after DCFS terminated the charity’s $30 million in contracts.


Schmidt listened to attorneys for the state and Catholic Charities argue the case for more than an hour before saying he will issue a written decision in the future.  He did not set a date for the ruling.


DCFS said it terminated the contracts because Catholic Charities does not want to place children in the homes of unmarried couples, including those in civil unions.


DCFS contends that amounts to discrimination and violates state law. Catholic Charities says such placements would violate its religious beliefs. The organization also argues that the state’s civil unions law contains a clause that allows religious organizations to not recognize such unions if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.


 


‘Property right’


The case before Schmidt, though, comes down to whether Catholic Charities has a protected property right to its contracts with DCFS, contracts the organization has held for 40 years.


“We have a legally protected interest, a 40-year contractual relationship with the state,” said Thomas Brejcha, one of Catholic Charities’ attorneys. “There is an apparatus set up in these dioceses with the full expectation they would keep going.”


Assistant attorney general Deborah Barnes said mere longevity does not translate a contract into a property right.


“In this case, the legal landscape has changed,” Barnes said. “Civil unions have the same status as anyone else in the state who wants to take care of children. Contracts must contain a provision to comply with civil unions.”


The state has the right to set contract terms within the bounds of the law, Barnes said, and Catholic Charities is not forced to sign contracts with the state.


“They are completely free not to enter into (state) contracts,” she said.


Brejcha said Catholic Charities does not want to walk away from the contracts.


“They believe this is a religious mission they shouldn’t walk away from,” he said.


 


Would refer couples


Catholic Charities wants to refer unmarried couples wishing to adopt or become foster parents to other agencies, including the state.


Assistant attorney general Josh Grant said Illinois’ civil unions law does not exempt religious organizations, as Catholic Charities contends it does. Lawmakers debated a bill last spring explicitly spelling out such an exemption, but it did not pass.


Brejcha said the bill didn’t pass because the civil unions bill “is clear as a bell” regarding the religious exemption.


The state terminated its contracts with Catholic Charities in the Springfield, Joliet, Peoria and Belleville dioceses in early July. Schmidt ruled last month that the contracts should stay in place until he issues a final ruling.  About 2,000 children are placed in foster homes through those dioceses.


Catholic Charities in the Rockford diocese previously stopped offering adoption and foster care services rather than be forced to place children in homes of unmarried couples.


Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527.


At a glance


*The background: Catholic Charities in Springfield, Joliet, Peoria and Belleville provides foster care and adoption services under contract with the Department of Children and Family Services and has for 40 years.


*The issue: Catholic Charities says placing foster and adoptive children in homes of unmarried couples, including those in civil unions, would violate its religious beliefs. DCFS believes state law requires those placements.


*The lawsuit: Catholic Charities sued after DCFS terminated its contracts. The contracts were temporarily reinstated while the issue is hashed out in court.


*What’s next?:  Sangamon County Judge John Schmidt heard arguments Wednesday from lawyers for the state and Catholic Charities. He will rule sometime in the future.