IL allows civil-unions, Catholics stop foster care. WTF?

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IL allows civil-unions, Catholics stop foster care. WTF?

PostPosted by verdilak » Thu Jun 02, 2011 1:02 am

Tomorrow will be the first time gay and lesbian couples will be able to enjoy civil-unions in the state of Illinois. The full text of the Bill can be read here. In response, Catholic Charities is ending foster care and adoption servicesto avoid serving same-sex parents.

ROCKFORD, Ill. — Their half-century relationship has spanned 10 U.S. presidencies but also occasional chapters of intolerance and raised eyebrows about how they live their lives. Through it all, they've endured, to the point that they have adjoining cemetery plots and a headstone already in place.

What Richard Peterson and Frank Colson lament is that they've never had official recognition from their government that they're a couple. This week, that changes.

On Wednesday, the Rockford retirees will be at the courthouse like scores of other gay and lesbian couples across Illinois, applying for a civil union license as a new state law bestows on them rights that were unimaginable when the two became a couple back in the early 1960s.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed the historic civil unions legislation into law in January, making Illinois the seventh state, along with the District of Columbia, to give same-sex couples significant legal protections. That includes the power to decide medical care for an ailing partner and the right to inherit the partner's property.

"It's really quite astonishing, to my way of thinking," said Peterson, 77. "It's a very important time for this state."

He and Colson, 75, were married in Iowa in 2009, a union that would be accepted under an interstate reciprocity provision in Illinois' new law. But they are leaving nothing to chance, seeing the law not only as a victory for civil rights but also assurance that they'll be able to make end-of-life decisions for each other.

It's not clear how many gay or lesbian couples will take advantage of the new law, though more than 1,000 people have attended recent forums on it statewide. It allows for couples to apply for civil unions beginning Wednesday, then wait a required one day before they're allowed to hold a ceremony.

A number of ceremonies are planned across the state on Thursday, including one for dozens of same-sex couples in Chicago's Millennium Park. Quinn is scheduled to attend.

"There is a lot of bottled-up anticipation," said Gail Siegel, the spokeswoman for the Cook County clerk, whose office began receiving calls for details soon after Quinn signed the law.

"This level of enthusiasm demonstrates this was not a symbolic battle," said Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive of Equality Illinois, the state's largest gay-rights group.

Gay rights activists say the new law falls short of legalizing same-sex marriages, but don't plan to push for that given its limited support in the Legislature.

Illinois still limits marriage to one man and one woman, and some conservative and religious groups opposed civil unions as paving the way toward the eventual erosion of that principle.

The new measure doesn't require churches to recognize civil unions or perform any kind of ceremony, though critics fear it will lead to other requirements such as including same-sex couples in religious-run adoption programs or granting benefits to employees' partners.

On Thursday, the Catholic diocese in Rockford announced that it will end its state-funded adoption and foster-care program in 11 northern Illinois counties rather than comply with the new civil-union law, which would require it to place children with gay or unmarried couples. Diocese officials said allowing such adoptions or foster placements would violate teachings of the Catholic faith, and church officials say other dioceses could make similar decisions after the law takes effect.

But across the state, gay couples are heralding the new law as a milestone for what they hope is growing tolerance.

"Sometimes I don't believe it's as big of a stepping stone for us as it is for straight people," said Duane Cole, a retired social services worker now living in Carbondale.

Cole and his partner, Joe Powers of Chicago, plan to begin arranging the civil-union paperwork on Wednesday in Jackson County and hold a ceremony with a minister later in the week in Carbondale, where they plan to settle.

"It couldn't have happened without straight society becoming more aware of the significance of legal recognition of any relationship," said Powers, who works for a utility.

"The state is telling us, 'Yes, you do make a contribution to society and we recognize that, and we want to make sure your relationship remains stable and viable."

For Peterson and Colson, the new law is a landmark in a five-decade story of transformation and recognition.

More than 50 years ago, the men met through their parents while living in St. Charles, a Chicago suburb where Colson's family was into dairy farming and Peterson's dad worked construction.

Colson told his conservative, religious parents he was gay when he was 15. As a boy, Peterson wasn't sure he was gay, even if a bully who taunted him mercilessly believed he was, but he dreaded any time he had to ask a girl out, remembering "I'd nearly have a stroke."

"We each went through a period where we thought we were the only gay person in the world," Peterson said.

Peterson spent two years in the Army in the 1950s, never telling anyone about his attraction to men. When asked on a questionnaire at the end of his stint about his sexual orientation, Peterson lied, worried that confessing could cost him an honorable discharge.

By 1961, when Colson was 25 and Peterson 27, the two had moved in together and the next year committed themselves to each other during a trip to Wisconsin. While they were more quiet about their relationship at first, the two opened a hair salon in the same brick, 19th-century building where Peterson had a flower shop.

Ultimately, they were open about their sexuality at a time when it wasn't always accepted.

A female client at the salon told Colson once that she knew a psychiatrist who could turn him straight. They remember a "filthy," anonymous phone call one night when they were just starting their business together.

Today, they proudly display their Iowa marriage certificate on the wall of their home, which they share with their poodle, Bogie. And they'll soon be able to pair it with a civil union license from Illinois.

"Sometimes, we don't find as many gay people who are as open as we are," Peterson said. "Sometimes, I think they are frightened by that (openness), and I'm hoping that's changing."

Catholic Charities of Rockford announced Thursday that the agency will halt its state-funded foster care and adoption services Wednesday — the day civil unions take effect in Illinois.

The decision is the first of what could become a domino effect of Catholic Charities leaving the foster care and adoption business to avoid liability if state law requires them to place children with parents in civil unions — either gay or straight.

In Rockford, the decision could displace about 350 foster children served by Catholic Charities and put 58 employees out of work.

Officials cited a lack of clarity in the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act, which does not specify whether religious child welfare agencies must place children with couples in civil unions.

Without a specific provision protecting religious agencies, church officials said, the agency can't risk losing state contracts or facing lawsuits if it turns away gay couples or others in civil unions. State funds make up about half of Catholic Charities of Rockford's $7.5 million operating budget.

"While we understand leaving this work will be very painful for our client families, employees, volunteers, donors and prayerful supporters, we can no longer contract with the state of Illinois whose laws would force us to participate in activity offensive to the moral teachings of the church — teachings which compel us to do this work in the first place," said Frank Vonch, director of social services for the Diocese of Rockford, which includes Kane and McHenry counties.

Lawyers for Gov. Pat Quinn, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services have been examining whether religious agencies that receive public funds to license foster care parents are breaking anti-discrimination laws if they turn away openly gay parents.

Several attempts have been made in Springfield to pass an amendment that would exempt religious child welfare agencies, but none have made it to the floor for a vote.

Ellen Lynch, general counsel for the Rockford Diocese, said the agency would consider reversing its decision if an amendment passes permitting religious institutions to refer couples in civil unions to another of at least 45 other agencies in the state. But the longer that takes, the more difficult that will be, she said.

In addition to Catholic Charities in five regions, Lutheran Child and Family Services and the Evangelical Child and Family Agency have policies that exclude prospective parents who are not married.

There is no word on whether Catholic Charities in Peoria, Joliet, Springfield or Belleville will make a decision similar to Rockford's. Ken Withrow, executive director of the Evangelical agency, said it was too early to make a decision. Gene Svebakken, president and chief executive officer of Lutheran Child and Family Services, said the agency may change parts of its policy if required to by the state.

Right now, lawyers for the agency believe state laws already exempt religious agencies and any amendment would be irrelevant, Svebakken said.

"It's our Christian vocation and calling to serve children," he said. "It's sad to see organizations give up."

Benjamin Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois who represents juvenile state wards as part of a court-monitored consent decree with DCFS, said the decision was troubling, especially in Rockford where there is a high turnover of child welfare workers and racial and economic tensions.

"Rockford would not be the place I would've chosen to start these transitions," Wolf said. "I am very sorry that they would give a greater priority to their commitment to continue discriminating than the health and welfare of Illinois children."

Wolf said that when Catholic Charities in Chicago ended its foster care services in 2007 because the agency's insurer dropped its coverage, many caseworkers and foster care homes agreed to transfer to other agencies without disrupting the children's placements. He hopes families in the 11 counties served by Rockford Catholic Charities will be similarly amenable.

Officials from Catholic Charities and DCFS will meet next week to begin the transition process.

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