In case you missed it, Illinois recently set up civil unions for non-heterosexuals. (Three cheers on that, btw!) It's called civil unions rather than marriages but I think I read somewhere the bill actually says civil unions get all the privileges of marriage? So it's a fairly strong statement that, if you offer some service to heterosexual married couples it also gets extended to these new civil unions. Trouble is, Illinois farms out a lot of their foster-care services to private non-profits, including the group Catholic Charities.
That group has decided to give up its state contracts in a few of the Illinois dioceses. According to the AP article I linked, Catholic Charities wants to refer gay couples to other foster care agencies that can service them while Catholic Charities continues to work with married, heterosexual couples. They're not trying to discourage homosexuals from adopting, as far as I can tell – they're just saying they can't help them. The question is, is that enough? I've heard several bloggers and pundits (sorry, can't find links) say no. Catholic Charities has a contract with the state to place foster-children in foster-homes. Maybe they have a right to be prejudiced (free speech, freedom of religion, etc.) but not on the public dime. Otherwise, so the argument goes, you're subsidizing homophobia, and you're throwing away a lot of rights just won in the civil unions law.
My first instinct was to agree with that line of thought. I am against so-called conscience laws where a health professional refuses to provide legal health services. Or where government registrars can refuse to sign off on gay marriages, like happened in the U.K. And I have a special hatred in my heart for the "crisis pregnancy centers" that don't make it clear they don't do abortions and try to delay the woman so she can't get an abortion until it's too late. But the Catholic Charities isn't being deceptive, and they're not operating in a time-sensitive situation where sending someone to another agency is out of line. So those superficial similarities to those other situations doesn't really hold up, I don't think.
It's a long-held Catholic belief that children should be raised by both a man and a woman who are committed to raising the kid. in a family – i.e. are married. To tell the Catholic Charities that they have to start certifying homosexuals requires them to give up their contracts. It's not just about money, I don't think. I've worked with the Catholic Charities group here as part of a DV shelter where I sometimes volunteer, and the people I've met – not just the grunts but the administration – seem genuinely interested in helping people. Giving up the contract means a lost opportunity to do that, and it doesn't just hurt the kids. I sincerely believe that in a society you help those around you; you hurt yourself when you give up on those relationships. Which means that Catholic Charities is doing just what you should be doing in a community. I don't want to ask them to give up the opportunity to get involved or give up their sincerely-held religious belief, without a really good reason.
A couple of problems with that, though. It assumes that people can afford to pay for both the charitable work and the taxes for the government. Maybe they can afford that now, but I'd love to see government do more, not less. Charities are great for the unexpected, but when we're talking institutional problems like this, we shouldn't be leaving that to charity if we can help it. Foster care is more about social justice than charity, anyway. I'd like more big-picture direction of what needs work with room for charities to carry it out in their own specialized way. And in our society that seems to mean governments and charities working together.
The bigger issue, though, is what kind of message this says to the religious. Are they welcome as part of the larger society or not? That makes all the difference, because if we're taking the radically secular way and say if you want to enter into the public square you have to set your religion aside. There are models for that. (France jumps to mind.) The problem is, secularism is an ideology – not a religion, but a viewpoint with its own assumptions. Carried to the extreme this would mean you would have a culture where a certain religious interpretation is allowed, and a culture where it doesn't, and no common place for the two to come together. That ain't cool.
Actually, this whole thing made me think of a sort of alternative scenario. Suppose there was a charity for African-Americans that wanted to place them into homes with other African-American foster parents so they didn't lose the connection with their culture. That meant they could only serve a certain segment of the population – A-A parents + A-A kids. If I, as a Caucasian, came to them they would point me in the right direction but refused to help me myself. In this particular case I would probably be okay with that. If there was no market for their services they'd work themselves out of contracts, but if there was, I'd have no problem with having a specialty group like that. Here it's religious priorities rather than racial ones, but I'm not sure that changes anything, really.
In case it needs to be said: Of course I disagree with the RCC's position. I actually disagree with it pretty strongly. But the philosopher in me insists that in itself isn't enough to kick them out of the club. Not unless they're doing real harm to children or prospective parents – and as long as they're really referring the gay parents to someone suitable, I'm not seeing that they are...