Cross-posted in the Rockford Register Star.

The Rockford Diocese recently announced Catholic Charities would end state-supported adoption and foster care programs. More than 50 employees will lose their jobs and approximately 350 children and families involved in the state foster care system will transition to other agencies.

Leaders of the diocese made the termination date for these services June 1 — the day that Illinois’ Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act took effect. The impression that one draws from the diocese’s statements is that the advent of civil unions drove Catholic Charities out of the business of foster care and adoption services.

This is misleading and disingenuous. Catholic Charities already refused to place children with lesbians and gays, and their refusal to place children with couples in civil unions is a continuation of that harmful policy.

Before the General Assembly passed the civil union law, Illinois child welfare officials, Gov. Pat Quinn and Attorney General Lisa Madigan had launched investigations into the practice of Catholic Charities (and other organizations) of excluding prospective adoptive gay parents.

The reason for this investigation is straightforward: These agencies elected to accept state money to carry out a government function — the licensing of foster and adoptive parents. Having chosen to voluntarily act in the state’s capacity, these agencies are expected to perform using the same standards as any other agency. Illinois law already required placements of children in state custody to be based on child welfare considerations, as opposed to the views of the agencies. Thus, denying foster or adoptive parents licenses based on their sexual orientation (or race and religion), already is prohibited by law.

Catholic Charities is free to practice in accordance with its religious teachings. But if it chooses to accept tax dollars to perform the state’s job of finding families for children in state custody, it may not use religious criteria — as opposed to child welfare criteria — in choosing families for them.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the announcement in Rockford is the suggestion that the church has been wronged. The damage is not to Catholic Charities or its religious views, which they are entitled to maintain. The harm is to the children denied loving families because of exclusionary policies. More than 15,000 children now are in the custody of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. These children come from homes where they have been abused or neglected.

Like every child, these 15,000 children deserve a safe, loving home where they are nurtured. That hope is undercut when qualified available families are needlessly excluded from consideration. Imagine a child who has been the victim of abuse or neglect being denied the opportunity to live with a loving aunt or uncle simply because the relative is lesbian or gay. That is not in the best interests of the child.

Research today shows that lesbians and gay men are just as qualified to parent and just as capable of providing safe and loving homes for children as their heterosexual counterparts. This is recognized by every major national organization devoted to children’s health and welfare, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the Child Welfare League of America. Today more gay and lesbian couples choose to act as foster parents for children from DCFS, often taking care and giving love to the most difficult and most challenging cases.

An agency that places its own values above the interests of the children it previously accepted into its care does a great disservice and in some instance affirmative harm to those children.

Benjamin Wolf is the associate legal director for the ACLU of Illinois and chief counsel in litigation designed to improve Illinois child welfare system. John Knight is the director of the ACLU of Illinois LGBT Rights Project.