Catholics and foster kids in Illinois

I complained last week -- surprise, surprise -- about an NPR report on Illinois' new civil unions law. Alas, this post is going to start in mid-sentence and not make a whole lot of sense if you missed that original post. So read it already. The latest development in the dispute over whether Catholic Charities can keep receiving public funding to provide foster care and adoption services in Illinois came this week.

The top of today's Chicago Tribune story:

SPRINGFIELD -- Catholic Charities won the right to keep serving nearly 2,000 foster children in Illinois for at least another month, as a judge refused Tuesday to let the state cut ties with the agency that has balked at placing children with gay and unwed couples.

The temporary decree struck at the heart of one of the most contentious debates since Illinois made civil unions legal.

Despite the state's arguments that no contracts exist because state officials already declined to renew them, Judge John Schmidt ruled in Sangamon County Circuit Court that contracts between the state and Catholic Charities of Joliet, Peoria and Springfield through June 30 would remain intact.

Now, I voiced concern that NPR saved all its warm fuzzies for the side of the debate opposed to Catholic Charities' position.

I'm not sure how the Tribune played the story in its print edition, but its online presentation gives a big ole warm fuzzy to a couple fostering children through Catholic Charities -- in the form of a cheerful main photo and the end quotes:

From Becky Wilhoit's perspective, Schmidt's ruling buys the three sisters — ages 6, 7 and 9 — in her home a little more time to heal before they return home.

Thrust into the foster care system just six months ago, the girls' caseworkers and counselors haven't yet gained their trust to pinpoint roadblocks and help them overcome their challenges, said Wilhoit, 39, of McLean. Transferring them from Catholic Charities could turn back the clock, she said.

It's enough to make Wilhoit and her husband, Stan, reconsider their calling to be foster parents 18 years ago.

"It's a very small issue to shut an entire agency down that's doing so much good in a community," said Becky Wilhoit, an evangelical Christian who is not Catholic. "We specifically chose Catholic Charities as the agency we wanted to work with knowing they were religious and that they had resources to provide what we needed for our family. We know other agencies in the town can't provide that for us. It becomes an issue for us to continue fostering."

I chuckled at the need to explain that an evangelical Christian "is not Catholic." Then again, given our repeated emphasis in this space on how difficult it is to define "evangelical Christian," maybe I should appreciate the clarity, even though I'm not sure that explanation tells me anything about the family's religious beliefs. But I digress.

Overall, the Tribune story -- which is just the latest update on this case by that newspaper -- seems to take a pretty straightforward approach and allow all sides to state their case (well, as much as possible in a daily news report). For a national perspective, check out this Washington Post religion blog item.

I was particularly pleased that the Tribune allowed Catholic Charities to explain why it does not believe its request to refer gay and lesbian parents to other social service agencies violates the new civil unions law:

An attempt by Catholic Charities to pass protective legislation failed in the Legislature during the spring, and the group threatened to close its foster care and adoption services if the law was not changed. But Brejcha argued the legislative debate for the civil union law shows legislators considered services provided by Catholic Charities as protected.

"The law says it doesn't regulate or interfere with religious practice," Brejcha said. "Religious practices (were) defined on the floor of the Illinois Legislature as including the rendition of social services. That's what the Gospel and the Sermon on the Mount are all about. Frankly, we've been incredulous."

Contrast that with how the Chicago Sun-Times reported -- as fact -- on Catholic Charities' unwillingness to obey the new law:

A DCFS spokesman would only say Tuesday that the agency is reviewing the order. Gov. Pat Quinn and other state officials have said that the decision to terminate the relationship with Catholic Charities was based on the organization’s unwillingness to comply with the new state law.

“Any organization that decides that because of the civil unions law that they won’t participate voluntarily in a program, that’s their choice,” Quinn said Monday.

Still unclear to me is this issue raised by reader Lynn in our previous discussion:

An important question which seems to be missing from the article, and all articles which I have read on this topic, is whether Catholic Charities would be allowed to operate adoption agencies according to their religious beliefs if they did so without government funding. Is Catholic Charities giving up because they don’t think they could financially support adoption agencies without government support? Or does the anti-discrimination regulation apply to all agencies, even those which are privately funded?

Perhaps that question has been addressed in other media reports and I missed it. If so, I'd appreciate it, kind readers, if you'd provide a link in the comments sections.

Flickr photo: Marlene Gucwa, a foster family trainer for Catholic Charities, watches her adopted daughter Consetta play with her adopted granddaughter McKenzie. (Photo by Rebecca Saunders/Catholic Sun)

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