With a lame-duck session of the Illinois General Assembly considering a proposal to establish civil unions between same-sex partners, the former president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has warned that the bill will confuse the public and pose problems for religious liberty.
“Marriage is what it is and always has been, no matter what a legislature decides to do,” Cardinal Francis E. George noted in his Nov. 22 statement, speaking as the head of the Archdiocese of Chicago. “However, the public understanding of marriage will be negatively affected” if the civil union bill passes.
Cardinal George expressed concern that the law would foster a functional equivalence between the natural institution of marriage –which is foundational to families and society– and other types of unions which cannot serve the same procreative or social purpose. Such an equivalence, he indicated, is contrary not only to faith, but to human reason.
In a statement accompanying Cardinal George's remarks, the Catholic Conference of Illinois observed that “marriage is granted unique protections and benefits under the law” because of its essential contribution to society's common good.
The conference reasoned in its statement that granting “marriage-like benefits” to same-sex partners would serve to “further weaken” the “already fragile institution” of marriage, by using the law to alter public perceptions and cultural norms.
Cardinal George also noted “the impact of this legislation on the Church's social service ministries,” a concern he said the bill's proponents had failed to address.
The Illinois conference's statement explained that the legislation did not sufficiently protect the religious liberty of adoption and foster care agencies, Church-run social services, and employers who might object to granting family benefits to same-sex couples.
Rep. Greg Harris, whose website declares him to be “the highest ranking openly gay elected official in the State of Illinois,” cosponsored the bill. He has claimed that the cardinal's anxieties about religious liberty are unfounded, since the bill purports not to “interfere with or regulate the religious practice of any religious body.''
Rep. Harris further speculated that either Cardinal George was being misled, or the conference was “trying to make more of (the bill) than there really is.” However, other bishops' experiences with local lawmakers and similar statutes would indicate that the cardinal's concerns are well-founded.
Other bills that have gained notoriety for their restrictions on the Church's free exercise of religion –such as Connecticut's notorious S.B. 1098, which barred Catholic bishops and priests from exercising administrative control of parishes– have included similar disclaimers.
Critics say that these disclaimers, while using the language of religious freedom, actually have the effect of severely restricting the notion of what “religious practice” is, in order to exclude virtually everything other than worship services from the definition.