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Church units not penalized for refusing gay adoptions

State holds off pending exemption bill

Catholic adoption agencies in Worcester, Fall River, and Springfield will not be sanctioned at this time by Governor Mitt Romney's administration over their refusal to accept gays and lesbians as prospective adoptive parents, even though the policies violate state antidiscrimination laws.

Constantia Papanikolaou -- general counsel for the state Department of Early Education and Care, which regulates adoption agencies -- said it is holding off taking any action because the governor has proposed legislation that could allow the agencies to legally refrain from considering gay adoptions on religious grounds. Romney proposed the bill after Catholic Charities of Boston announced last month it was ending its adoption services because it could no longer reconcile church teaching with state antidiscrimination laws.

''We're going to wait and see how the legislation plays out," Papanikolaou said.

She also said the state has not received any complaints from the public about the adoption practices of Catholic Charities in Worcester, Catholic Charities of Fall River, or Brightside for Families and Children in Springfield. Catholic Charities agencies are part of each city's diocese, and Brightside is run by the Sisters of Providence Health System and handles many adoptions referred by the Springfield Diocese.

Meanwhile, a major gay rights organization also cited a future change in the political landscape to explain why it has not publicly protested the refusal of those agencies to accept gay applicants. Gary Buseck, legal director of the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in Boston, said his group realizes that Massachusetts will have a new governor next year, and it expects that he or she will aggressively enforce the state's antidiscrimination laws.

He said he had hoped that the Romney administration would take issue with the Catholic agencies for taking a position that is offensive to gays and lesbians. He said ''the illegality shouldn't be allowed to stand." For now, however, his organization has chosen a strategy of ''watching and waiting," rather than a direct confrontation with state officials.

The three agencies have largely been in the shadows since controversy erupted last fall when Catholic Charities of Boston disclosed that it had placed 13 children with same-sex couples in the past two decades. In 2003, the Vatican issued a statement condemning same-sex marriage that described placing children in gay households as ''gravely immoral."

The Boston agency had said it had to accept gay applicants to comply with state laws prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians, but Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley and three bishops in the state made clear earlier this year that allowing such placements with same-sex couples violated church doctrine. They asked the state to exempt the Catholic agencies from that part of the state's antidiscrimination laws.

Romney said he could not unilaterally exempt them, but he floated the idea of a new religious-exemption law that would enable him to do so. Legislative leaders said such a proposal would never pass the Legislature. Seeing little chance of any immediate legal remedy and on the verge of processing more gay adoptions this year, Catholic Charities of Boston announced on March 10 that it would shut down its century-old adoption service. Within hours of the announcement, the governor filed the bill requested by Catholic leaders.

Since then, the three other Catholic social service agencies in Massachusetts have maintained that they have never and will not accept gay applicants. Brightside, for instance, said in a press release last month that it ''awaits clarification from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to determine if it will permit Brightside to continue to operate consistent" with Catholic doctrine.

The state has no clarification to give at this time, but will await the fate of the governor's bill, said Papanikolaou. Eric Fehrnstrom, the governor's spokesman, declined to comment.

Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said she sees the controversy as particularly complex, because it affects not only gay civil rights, but the fate of needy children who need homes. She said she understands why gay rights groups want to move slowly to avoid disrupting important social service programs.

Still, she said, she finds it hypocritical that the Romney administration was ''picking and choosing" the laws it enforces. She said the governor has invoked a 1913 law to stop the state from marrying gay couples who are from out of state, but ignores a more recent law designed to protect gays from discrimination in the area of adoption.

Catherine Loeffler, executive director of Catholic Charities of Worcester, said she does not see her agency as doing anything harmful to gays or lesbians, because her agency simply refers these applicants to other agencies. She said her organization wants to help children, while keeping its work ''in harmony with Catholic teachings."

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.

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