Civil union bill ramifications remain unclear

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010

Catholic dioceses, agencies and other organizations are trying to figure out how the creation of civil unions will change the landscape in which they work.

Both houses of the Illinois legislature approved a bill creating civil unions — like marriages in everything but name and federal benefits — in early December and Gov. Pat Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, promised to sign it in early 2012. It applies both to same-sex and opposite-sex couples. It is slated to go into effect June 1.

The Catholic Conference of Illinois issued a statement after the bill passed the Illinois Senate Dec. 2 saying it “regrets” the passage of the bill.

“The legislation also contains the potential for serious conflict with religious liberty,” the statement says. “While the bill states that nothing in the act should interfere with or regulate the religious practice of any religious body, such language may offer little protection in the context of litigation religious institutions may soon encounter in relation to charitable services, adoption and foster care.”

Because the bill requires partners — of the same or opposite sex — who have registered civil unions to be treated as spouses, it is unclear whether, for example, Catholic Charities agencies would be forced to offer adoption services to same-sex couples or change the way they provide transitional housing for families, or whether dioceses would have to offer family medical benefits to the same-sex partners of employees.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago – which provides adoption services and housing services among its many programs – does not plan to make any immediate changes to its policies, said Kristin Ortman, director of communications for the agencies.

“We’re going to wait and see what happens,” she said.

Catholic Charities agencies in other states that allow same-sex marriage or civil unions have had to get out of the adoption business all together, and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., stopped offering health benefits to spouses earlier this year, after the district began allowing same-sex marriages and required that all benefits given to opposite-sex spouses must also be offered to partners in a same-sex marriage.

The Illinois bill reads: “Nothing in this Act shall interfere with or regulate the religious practice of any religious body. Any religious body, Indian Nation or Tribe or Native Group is free to choose whether or not to solemnize or officiate a civil union.”

But critics, including the Thomas More Society, point out that religious bodies participate in lots of activities that might not be classified as “religious practice.”

In an interview on Fox News, the executive director of the society, Peter Breen, said he expects those provisions to go to court.

In a Catholic Conference of Illinois statement before the bill’s passage, Cardinal George said the provision of civil unions goes against the innate institution of marriage between one man and one woman.

“Everyone has a right to marry, but no one has the right to change the nature of marriage,” he said. “Marriage is what it is and always has been, no matter what a legislature decides to do; however, the public understanding of marriage will be negatively affected by passage of a bill that ignores the natural fact that sexual complementarity is at the core of marriage.

“Moreover, the impact of this legislation on the church’s social service ministries remains an important and thus far unanswered concern. This important legislation is being put before a lame-duck General Assembly and more should be done to engage the people in public debate.”

Indeed, in the Illinois House, where the bill passed by one vote, 14 of 17 lame-duck representatives voted for it, said Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois. At least some of them probably would not have supported it if they were facing another election campaign, he said.

As for how the bill will affect social services provided by the Catholic Church, Gilligan said he didn’t know.

“We asked these questions before the vote, and we didn’t get a rousing response,” he said.