Common Sense

Wed. February 1, 2012 12:00 AM
by Waymon Hudson

Anyone who has been following the news in Illinois in the past year has seen the ongoing fight between the powerful Catholic Church in the state and the new civil unions law that extends some rights associated with civil marriage to same-sex couples. Tensions have been mounting as the church sets its sights on fighting civil rights for LGBT people, from the formation of Catholic Conference of Illinois' multi-million dollar "Defense of Marriage" department (whose sole purpose is to fight any future attempts to legalize same-sex marriage in the state) to the recent statements from Cardinal Francis George where he compared the Chicago Pride Parade to Ku Klux Klan marches against Catholicism.

The fight continues, this time with support from some Illinois lawmakers who are attacking the "Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act" and trying to carve out broad religious exemptions to weaken the state's new statute. Republican State Representative Dwight Kay (R-Edwardsville) has filed legislation "that would allow religion based or affiliated adoption agencies with state contracts to decline an adoption or foster family home application, as well as licensure and placement, to anyone in a civil union."

Kay calls this gutting of the law and blatant discrimination against same-sex couples "common sense."

"Religious based childcare done by Catholic and Lutheran organizations has been an integral part of the state of Illinois," Kay said. "It has done a better job of handling child care services and it's done much cheaper."

Kay is obviously referring to last year's drawn-out fight over the role of "faith-based" religious organizations in providing our public, tax-payer-funded services in light of the new civil unions law. At issue was the recent legal battle between Catholic Charities and the state of Illinois over the organization's state-funded adoption and foster care contracts. Catholic Charities refused to comply with the very clear rights extended to same-sex couples in the civil unions law and would not provide those tax-payer funded services to same-sex couples. Illinois ended the over $30 million dollars in annual contracts with Catholic Charities, making the roughly 25% of adoption services paid for by the state and by tax dollars that were provided by Catholic Charities available to the over 1,600 couples in civil unions in Illinois. This meant more potential homes for kids in need of a loving family that will be judged by what is best for the child and not by religious belief or dogma. The state has been transitioning the group's 2,000 foster care and adoption cases to other agencies that comply with the law. Catholic Charities tried unsuccessfully to sue the state to restore the money.

When a religious organization accepts tax-payer money, they become a state contractor, in essence becoming an arm of the state. You greatly weaken civil rights legislation, like relationship recognition for same-sex couples or LGBT employment discrimination protections, when forced to carve out broad religious exemptions to "protect" these contractors, lessening their impact and creating a religious-based test for granting public services . The legislation that Kay calls "just another common sense bill" would start a chain reaction that wold allow anyone with religious objections to ignore civil laws.

This latest measure marks the fifth time legislation has been filed in Illinois that attempts to water down the state's civil union law over the past year. Kay's bill failed last year and will hopefully be killed again this year.

There are basic civil rights that must be separated from religious beliefs. We claim to be a country of laws and human rights, yet too often we cede those issues to religious groups by giving them loopholes from following the laws we pass. Legislators like Kay and organizations like Catholic Charities say they shouldn't be "forced to choose between their values and the law." It's a false statement and a red herring argument meant to stoke tensions between church and state.

We have a strong history of religious freedom in this country. Private religious organization are free to think, preach, and follow whatever beliefs they wish. They don't, however, have the right to use our tax dollars to do so and weaken our civil laws. When they operate in the public sphere with money from our government, civil rights must be respected or else anti-discrimination laws become pointless.

That's what I call "common sense."