By CARLA K. JOHNSON
PEORIA, Ill. – The Catholic Diocese of Peoria announced that it plans to stop providing state-funded social services and withdraw from a court battle involving Illinois’ new civil unions law.
The announcement on Thursday came two days after an appeal was filed by Catholic Charities affiliated with the Joliet, Springfield and Belleville dioceses, which are challenging a Sangamon County judge’s ruling siding with the state of Illinois.
The charities wish to continue their state contracts, while also referring unmarried couples who want to be adoptive or foster parents to other agencies, citing principles of religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
The state of Illinois has said that longstanding practice is discriminatory, a violation of the new law, which allows unmarried couples- gay or straight- to legally enter into civil unions.
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.
The Peoria Diocese’s approximately 1,000 foster care cases will be handled by a new nonprofit organization called the Center for Youth and Family Solutions, which intends to hire the existing child welfare staff of Peoria Catholic Charities, said Illinois Department of Children and Family Services spokesman Kendall Marlowe.
Peoria Catholic Charities will handle the cases through Jan. 31, giving the new agency time to obtain a child welfare license, Marlowe said.
“We commend Catholic Charities of Peoria for putting children first,” Marlowe said. “They have a proud tradition of serving children and families in need and today’s decision means that legacy lives on.”
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.”