Updated: November 1, 2011 11:59PM
You’ve heard how the inventors of American democracy were prescient geniuses.
But perhaps it takes a real-life quandary to validate how smart they were.
Take, for example, the dispute between the state of Illinois and Catholic Charities of the dioceses of Joliet, Springfield and Peoria regarding the care of foster and adopted children.
If you thought the Constitutional principle of separating the state from activities of religious faith was intrusive, this case reminds us that it is not. In fact, it proves even that well-meant social outreach must meet a more precise legal standard when the two interact.
It reminds us that the protections work both ways — protecting the faithful from government intrusion and protecting a secular government from living under a religious mandate.
The central element of the recently passed state law legitimized civil unions which, according to the state, means Catholic Charities can no longer deny gay couples the right to be foster parents just because they are gay.
So the contract between the state and Catholic Charities to administer foster care was not renewed. Catholic Charities would not agree to that and sued.
A Sangamon County judge wisely called a timeout until a decisive Aug. 17 hearing. That means the 2,000 foster children assigned by Catholic Charities will stay where they are for now.
In Cook County, it won’t mean much. The Archdiocese of Chicago isn’t involved in this dispute because it quit offering foster care and adoption services on behalf of the state in 2007. But for hundreds of displaced and at-risk children in Will County, this is fraught with danger if it’s not handled with some wisdom.
Catholic Charities argues that the state’s interpretation of the civil union bill interferes with Catholicism’s view that gay couples should not be treated as if they were heterosexual. The state argues that Catholic Charities’ ban is discriminatory on its face.
Gov. Pat Quinn made the point this way: “They (dioceses) made a choice. They have a law in Illinois. It’s the civil unions law. I signed it into law. We’re not going back. Any organization that decides that because of the civil unions law that they won’t participate voluntarily in a program, that’s their choice.”
If Catholic Charities takes the position out of religious belief, we believe it should continue to do what its faith demands. The Constitution protects that right.
But the state, acting for all citizens, has a responsibility to reject bias when public money is being spent. The Constitution demands that, too.
We say the 2,000 children should remain where they are until or unless they are prepared to be returned to their families. Foster care is designed to reunite families. So a time will come for most of the kids when that remedy will apply.
But ultimately, Catholic Charities must change its view (which seems unlikely) or accept that it can no longer be a subsidized arm of the state. The state, not a particular religion, has the ultimate legal duty to care for the children who are its wards.
The mingling of state and religious principles always has an inherent risk of conflicting values. We say that in full knowledge that Catholic Charities has done noble work.
The Founders knew to keep religious functions and public funds as far from each other as possible. This controversy again reminds us why.