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For just over a month now in Illinois, civil unions for same-sex couples have been legal. The law that allows those unions also says adoption agencies receiving state funds can't turn away gay couples. Well, now Catholic Charities agencies in three Illinois diocese have sued the state. They say they shouldn't be forced to place children with gay families.

NPR's Cheryl Corley has more.

CHERYL CORLEY: The day after civil unions went into effect in Illinois last month, Chicago's lush, flower-filled Millennium Park was full of music, families, friends and reporters, as circuit court judges conducted civil unions for more than 30 gay and lesbian couples.

Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn called it a historic day for Illinois.

PATRICK QUINN: There are all kinds of different families in Illinois and we understand and love one another. We understand that it is very, very important to have civil rights and civil unions.

CORLEY: But the law allowing civil unions has put the state and some faith- based organizations at odds. Catholic Charities in five Illinois dioceses had received state funds to provide foster care and adoption services. They only placed children with straight married couples or straight single people who lived alone.

As a civil union law went into effect June 1st, Catholic Charities in Rockford, Illinois ended its adoption service. It was concerned it would have to place children with same-sex couples or face discrimination lawsuits. Catholic Charities in three other Illinois dioceses put licensing any new prospective parents on hold and sued the state.

PETER BREEN: The idea that a religious entity needs to check its religion at the door when it takes state money is a false idea.

CORLEY: Peter Breen, executive director of the Thomas More Society, represents Catholic Charities in the dioceses of Joliet, Peoria and Springfield, Illinois. He says for decades, Catholic Charities has referred unmarried couples, regardless of their sexual orientation, to other agencies or back to DCFS, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

BREEN: If the theory behind civil unions is live and let live, then those folks who are for civil unions can also be for Catholic Charities and other religiously-based adoption agencies to provide services to the state which are valuable, and can continue to do it without shutting down, without compromising their deeply held religious beliefs.

CORLEY: Kendall Marlowe, a spokesman for DCFS, says times have changed, and so has the law. He says separate but equal just isn't good enough, and the state's anti-discrimination position is clear.

KENDALL MARLOWE: All agencies working for the Department of Children and Family Services must obey Illinois law.

CORLEY: At the heart of the matter is whether this law allows a religious exemption. Breen, with the Thomas More Society, argues that adoption is part of the church's mission. Yale University law professor William Eskridge says that's reasoning the court will likely reject.

WILLIAM ESKRIDGE: I don't know of any court decision that holds ancillary services, including adoption services or, say, educational services, as part of the core religious mission.

CORLEY: Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C., and Boston shut down their publicly-funded foster care and adoption services after gay marriage became legal. Eskridge says if the agencies are successful in Illinois, that could prompt legal fights elsewhere.

Unidentified Woman #1: Okay, so now it's going to have to load up.

CORLEY: In their living room, Nancy Matthews and Lisa Frohman, both college professors, are watching their 10-year-old son, Eli, as he downloads a movie on their flat-screen TV.

BLOCK: I'm watching "Iron Man 2," and this is my first time watching it.

CORLEY: The couple traveled out of state to adopt Eli. They say the Illinois civil union law will make it easier for gay and lesbian couples who don't want to hide their sexuality as they try to adopt. And Frohman calls the Catholic Charities lawsuit frustrating.

LISA FROHMAN: If this is about the care of children, then that should be the focus. And being a qualified, loving person is not about your sexuality.

CORLEY: But Matthews says she can understand the conflict between deeply held principles and civil rights in American culture. But even so...

NANCY MATTHEWS: Part of me just says, well, if they don't want to do it, you know, someone else will take their place. But maybe in some towns, there aren't other agencies doing this work. And that, you know, that creates a problem.

CORLEY: The Catholic Charities in Illinois that have sued the state say they want to continue to provide homes for children but using their guidelines. It will now be up to a judge to make that decision. The state's deadline to respond to the lawsuit is this week.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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