Church employees and civil unions

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With the passage of civil unions in Illinois, the state with one of the largest archdioceses in the country now has to tackle some sticky questions. Though the Illinois Catholic Conference, headed by Chicago's cardinal and outgoing USCCB president Francis George, strongly opposed the measure, it squeaked by in the Illinois House by a single vote but passed with a wider margin in the state Senate. Its significance for church agencies is still an open question.

Marilou Gervacio, director of social justice/social services for the conference, told me this morning that the conference is hoping for revisions to answer some of their concerns. "Exemptions for religious instituations are very limited from our reading of the bill," she said. "The bill mentions that churches would not need to solemnize civil unions. But we have concerns about other effects on social service agencies and employers in terms of delivery of foster services and adoption and as employers in terms of benefits we might be requied to provide, such as heath coverage. There are no exceptions in our reading of the bill." Catholic Charities, for example, will only place children for foster care or adoption with single people or married couples. (Still waiting on a call from Illinois State Rep. Greg Harris, the chief sponsor of the bill, on religious exemptions.)

One of the effects of the law is to require employers in the state to offer equal benefits for partners regardless of gender. (In Illinois, heterosexual couples can enter civil unions as well, which would allow senior citizens especially to marry without losing Social Security survivor benefits through their deceased spouses.) There are many large Catholic institutions in the state--hospitals and universities, in addition to Catholic Charities and the like--which will be put in an interesting position. Some dioceses, such as San Francisco, offer "second domiciled adult" benefits, which allows an employee to cover another adult member of his or her household, as does DePaul University in Chicago, the largest Catholic university in the country.

Patrick Cacchione of the Illinois Catholic Health Association, however, said that his members looked at the bill more from a provider perspective. "We did not take a spedific position on this bill. But we did do a survey about vistiation issue. It came back unaminous that it wasn't an issue from a health care perspective. Our hospitals unanimously did not discriminate against partners or significant others," he said. "If someone had designated their partner as durable power we recognize that. If they did not have a legal document, then by law we go to next of kin. But if a gay person did have a durable power and designated their partner, we recognize it; it's a legal document."

Cacchione said he didn't hear from members about the health benefits issue for employees. "On domestic partner benefits, I don’t know if they do or don’t offer them."

It will be interesting to see once the law goes into effect in June how Catholic agencies respond to it, or if there will be any changes. "We need to review the law once it is signed by the governor and see what needs to be addressed," Gervacio said.