Yet another faith-based organization has fallen victim to a state government’s refusal to defend religious liberty. After more than 100 years serving the most vulnerable children in Illinois, the Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Rockford will cease its state-funded adoption and foster care services today.

The diocese decided to terminate its $7.5 million contract with the state of Illinois after policymakers failed to include a religious exemption in the state’s new civil unions law, effective today. Under the new law, Illinois foster care and adoption agencies may be forced to place children with unmarried, cohabitating couples—either homosexual or heterosexual. Faith-based adoption agencies are potentially vulnerable to increased liability if they continue to follow their moral convictions and refuse to place children in homes headed by unmarried couples.

Unwilling to compromise their belief that children deserve the opportunity to grow up in a stable, married household and experience the unique benefits provided by both a mother and a father, Catholic Charities has effectively been forced to stop providing child services altogether. The diocese, which began caring for abandoned children shortly after its founding in 1908, will transfer almost 200 foster care families and the care of roughly 350 children to other Illinois adoption agencies. The Rockford diocese will close more than half of its offices in Illinois and lay off the agency’s 58 caseworkers and employees.

Frank Vonch, a senior Catholic Charities official, explained the diocese’s difficult decision at a press conference:

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.

The Rockford diocese and other religious adoption agencies gave the Illinois legislature the opportunity to protect the very moral beliefs that inspire their care for vulnerable children. Catholic Charities repeatedly requested that a strong religious exemption be included in the civil union law that would allow it to continue a policy of referring unmarried, cohabitating couples to other adoption agencies.

Instead, the civil union law places the Rockford diocese in an untenable situation: forcing it to choose between compromising its conscience on marriage and curtailing its commitment to charity. As Heritage Visiting Fellow Thomas Messner points out:

When civil liability or equal access to government benefits depends on private citizens adopting the ‘official’ state position on controversial moral issues, the potential for infringement of religious liberty and rights of conscience is clear.

Good reasons of broad civic importance exist for government to honor marriage and promote stable, mother–father households. Where government chooses to act contrary to this goal, policymakers should guarantee robust religious liberty—not impose burdens hostile to the conscience of institutions whose work advances civil society.