When a statewide immigrant-rights coalition endorsed same-sex marriage this past spring, 11 groups were given a stark choice by a Roman Catholic anti-poverty program: Leave the coalition, or lose their Catholic funding.
Eight of the groups decided to stick with the Illinois Coalition for Immigration and Refugee Rights. Another group broke with both. All told, the nine groups gave up grants totaling nearly $300,000 from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. This week, some began scaling back projects that address domestic violence, affordable housing and immigration rights.
The decision marks a rift between secular and Catholic leaders who had long been aligned in the push for immigrant rights in the United States. Church leaders say that chasm has been widened by a national movement to link gay rights and immigration reform.
“We don’t have a formal stance on marriage equality,” said Jenny Arwade, executive director of the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, which this week reduced the size of an after-school program that taught bicycle mechanics to neighborhood teens. “Our organizational values are that we believe in equal rights for all people. We were disappointed in the decision. We also believe it’s the church’s decision to do what they want to do.”
This year, the Catholic anti-poverty group awarded more than 40 grants to groups around the state that work to empower the poor. Each recipient signed a contract, agreeing to uphold church teachings in all they do. That rule also applies to the alliances to which they belong, the archdiocese says.
“Donors to the (Catholic Campaign) give to this anti-poverty organization with the understanding that their money will be passed on to organizations that respect the teachings of the Catholic faith,” Cardinal Francis George, Chicago’s archbishop, said in an open letter in July defending the decision. “Organizations that apply for funds do so agreeing to this condition.”
To keep programs up and running, several charitable foundations launched an emergency fund to make up for the loss. To date, the so-called Solidarity Fund has raised only $91,000 of the nearly $300,000 deficit.
“The groups they’ve chosen to defund are working on a variety of issues in their communities,” said Jeanne Kracher, executive director of the Crossroads Fund of Chicago, the foundation administering the emergency money. “None of them have dropped what they’re doing and exclusively started working on gay marriage. It just seemed odd to say: ‘Last week we thought you were great but this week, we don’t.’”
The Catholic anti-poverty group hasn’t always so rigorously enforced its donation criteria. It cracked down in 2009 when the group came under fire from conservative Catholic watchdogs for financing organizations that violated church teachings, including same-sex marriage, birth control and socialism. The criticism prompted leaders to scour grant recipients for such violations and redefine who qualifies for funds.
One of the groups flagged by conservative critics, the Chicago Worker’s Collaborative, was rumored to be affiliated with the International Socialist Organization. Popes have denounced socialism as a steppingstone to communism. Those socialist ties proved to nothing but gossip on the Internet, the archdiocese said.
But the Chicago Worker’s Collaborative also belonged to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. When given the choice to withdraw from the coalition or lose its $20,000 grant, executive director Leone Jose Bicchieri said the decision boiled down to timing.
“It was difficult to settle into our decision and live with it, but it wasn’t that hard a decision to make,” he said. “It was not the moment to splinter off from a statewide immigrant rights coalition. It was not the moment to not be united around immigration reform. That was the overriding consideration.”
Fighting for immigration reform has long been part of the church’s agenda.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today in the fight for immigration reform without the support and partnership of the Catholic Church both locally and nationally,” said Lawrence Benito, CEO of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “We have consistent values in terms of immigration reform.”
In fact, Chicago’s Catholic Charities and a number of parishes across the state belonged to the statewide immigrant-rights coalition.
Those relationships ended after the coalition adopted a position on gay marriage in May, a week before the end of the legislative session in Springfield. Anticipating a vote on gay marriage, advocates implored the coalition to issue a statement that they believed would sway politicians. Without time to seek input from all of its members, the board put it to a vote and announced its support for same-sex marriage. When the issue didn’t come up for a final vote in the House, the coalition’s urgency proved pointless, Benito said.
But the point wasn’t lost on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
Earlier that month on Capitol Hill., Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, proposed amending the immigration reform bill to include foreign-born, same-sex spouses. Leahy eventually withheld the amendment, but church leaders already felt betrayed.
Anthony Suarez-Abraham, head of the Chicago Archdiocese’s office for peace and justice, said that after Leahy’s action, U.S. bishops put everyone on high alert for attempts to combine gay rights and immigration reform elsewhere. So when the state’s immigrant rights coalition endorsed gay marriage, it struck a nerve.
“Jesus is merciful, but he is not stupid,” George said in a letter defending the Campaign’s decision not to fund members of the coalition. “He knows the difference between right and wrong. Manipulating both immigrants and the Church for political advantage is wrong.”
Benito said the board never saw it coming. In hindsight, he said the board regrets its haste but stands by its position.
“We knew there would be some pushback, but we didn’t really fully understand the extent at which this could play out,” he said. “Our only regret was the process by which we made the decision. Since then, … we’ve come to the same conclusion. As an organization dedicated to justice, fairness and equality we saw this issue as consistent with those principles.”
Kracher applauded the coalition’s decision to endorse an issue that didn’t directly fit its agenda.
“Our desire is to see the communities work across issues and in relationship with each other,” she said. “That’s what makes a community. From our perspective what the Illinois coalition did wasn’t completely out of the realm of what you do as a civil rights group.”
On top of a number of Catholic institutions, three grant recipients withdrew from the statewide immigrants coalition. Arise Chicago, a group that builds partnerships between faith leaders and activists to fight unjust labor practices, ended its membership and declined its $25,000 campaign grant.
“We really don’t want to get caught up in another conflict,” said the Rev. Larry Dowling, a Catholic priest at the head of Arise Chicago’s board. “We want to step out of the fray and continue to support the work of both groups.”
Ana Parra, director of the Interfaith Leadership Project in Cicero, also renounced membership in the coalition. Turning down the Catholic Campaign grant would have alienated the Catholic parishes in Berwyn and Cicero who make up more than half of the project’s membership, she said.
The coalition has continued distributing federal funds to her program with no strings attached.
“I’m very disappointed I can’t have both,” Parra said. “The coalition plays a huge role in our organization providing citizenship services. In order for us to continue working, we need both.”
“We’re not against anybody,” she said. “We’re just trying to help the commonwealth.”
Earlier versions of this article undercounted the number of groups that have given up funding.
WHAT GROUPS DECIDED
Members of Illinois Coalition for Immigration and Refugee Rights who got Catholic Campaign for Human Development funding were told last spring that they would lose funding unless they quit the coalition, which endorsed gay marriage. Here’s how the groups reacted, broken down by diocese (asterisk indicates last year’s grant amount; otherwise, this year’s amount is listed):
LEFT THE COALITION
- Arise Chicago, $25,000
- Interfaith Leadership Project, $20,000
- Most Blessed Trinity, $20,000
LEFT THE COALITION, BUT DECLINED GRANT
In the Chicago Archdiocese:
- Arise Chicago, $25,000
STAYED IN THE COALITION
- The Resurrection Project, $75,000
- Logan Square Neighborhood Association, $20,000
- Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, $38,000*
- United African Organization, $30,000*
- Albany Park Neighborhood Council, $20,000
- Chicago Workers' Collaborative, $20,000
- South Suburban Immigrant Project $10,000
- University YMCA, $60,000
Source: Tribune reportingCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun