First up from the God Machine this week is a fascinating church-state conflict in Illinois, where a major Roman Catholic charity wants to be able to accept taxpayer funds while discriminating against some taxpayers.

Catholic Charities in Illinois has served for more than 40 years as a major link in the state’s social service network for poor and neglected children. But now most of the Catholic Charities affiliates in Illinois are closing down rather than comply with a new requirement that says they can no longer receive state money if they turn away same-sex couples as potential foster care and adoptive parents.

For the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, the outcome is a prime example of what they see as an escalating campaign by the government to trample on their religious freedom while expanding the rights of gay people. The idea that religious Americans are now the victims of government-backed persecution is now a frequent theme not just for Catholic bishops, but also for Republican presidential candidates and conservative evangelicals.

Public contracts with Catholic Charities have been common for decades, and they’ve been deemed legally permissible precisely because of their secular nature — the faith-based organization receives funds to provide a valuable public service, but it does so in a way that’s distinct from the church’s religious agenda. Catholic Charities, like other religious charities, have been willing to accept some strings with the tax dollars: no proselytizing, separate accounting that’s subject to public audits, etc.

But some states are now adding additional strings — these charities that receive taxpayer money now can’t discriminate against LGBT taxpayers. And for Catholic Charities in Illinois, that’s apparently a bridge too far. The group wants to help families, but not if it means helping gay families.

From Catholic Charities’ perspective, it’s facing some degree of discrimination. As the argument goes, Catholic Charities should be able to accept public tax dollars to perform a public service, and be able to discriminate against members of the public the organization doesn’t like. The fact that Illinois officials disagree is, in Catholic Charities’ mind, some kind of persecution in which state government is trying to force the faith-based institution to change its moral standards.

It’s awfully tough to take this argument seriously. Indeed, when the group’s lawyers sued Illinois, the case failed miserably.

Jay Bookman had a good piece explaining just how misguided Catholic Charities’ argument is: “It is not persecution to be held to the standards that are applied to every other contractor that does business with the state. To the contrary, the church is demanding ‘special rights’ to violate the law and to use taxpayers’ money to do so. It’s akin to some church or social agency taking state money to run soup kitchens to feed the poor, but demanding the right to deny aid to black people or Hispanics. The church, using its own funds, would have every right to refuse to assist in gay adoptions. The First Amendment gives it that protection. But by accepting taxpayer dollars, it accepts the conditions that come with it.”

Scott Wooledge added, “[I]n many jurisdictions, the Church could continue to fund discriminatory foster care and adoption services if the Church wished, just not subsidized by taxpayers. The Church would have to offer these services supported only by its own money.” Catholic Charities has so far refused, relying on 97% of its budget from outside the churches in the diocese.

Let’s also not forget that some faith-based charities are working with states on this rather than abandoning those in need. Missouri Synod does not sanction same-sex relationships, but Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois has decided to continue to help children, despite the state’s new rules.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Fox Latin America ran an online poll on its Facebook page this week, asking readers who they think was responsible for killing Jesus: Pontius Pilate, The Jewish People or the High Priests. Fox later apologized.

* It took 1,500 years, but the Talmud now has an accessible index. (thanks to R.P.)

* And in his Christmas Eve homily, Pope Benedict XVI urged worshippers to “see through the superficial glitter of this season.” I have a hunch that’s a losing battle. (thanks to V.S.)

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.