By Bob Allen
A Baptist child care agency at the center of a 13-year legal dispute over the use of taxpayer funds by religious organizations is challenging a settlement between civil-rights and religious liberty advocates and Kentucky’s state government announced March 21.
Sunrise Children’s Services, formerly known as Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, released a statement describing Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU’s declaration of victory as “premature.”
The agency indicated it intends to seek a final ruling on a motion filed last November asking the court to recognize that reimbursements the government gives to Sunrise for secular services it provides to children who are wards of the commonwealth do not violate the First Amendment ban on establishment of religion by the government.
“Recent rulings by the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts make it absolutely clear that a government may provide benefits to faith-based entities without violating the Establishment Clause if the benefits are available to secular and religious entities alike,” said John Sheller, Sunrise’s attorney and a member of Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLC. “The commonwealth’s existing system complies with this requirement.”
According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, state records released during the case found that children at the homes said in dozens of exit interviews that they were forced into Christian or specifically Baptist practices or discouraged from practicing their own religion.
Sunrise denies that religious coercion takes place in its homes, but the settlement seeks to make sure that doesn’t happen with provisions such as bans on pressuring children to participate in religious services and placing religious materials in their rooms without their knowledge or permission.
Sheller told the Courier-Journal that the agency accepts most aspects of the settlement but objects to being singled out in a requirement that the state provide plaintiffs with reports monitoring Sunrise’s compliance.
A lawsuit filed in 2000 started as a complaint by an employee fired in 1998 after her employers discovered she was a lesbian. The court denied her discrimination claim but kept alive the objection to taxpayer support for organizations that proselytize raised by fellow plaintiffs including former Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Paul Simmons.
Sunrise is an agency of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. KBC Executive Director Paul Chitwood supported the ministry in opposing the settlement.
“The time for Kentucky Baptists to rally behind Sunrise Children’s Services through prayer, financial support and by becoming foster parents is now,” Chitwood said in a statement. “Having been singled out from numerous private, faith-based care providers, I applaud Sunrise Children’s Services for refusing to go along with the commonwealth’s settlement.”
Chitwood said he believes adequate safeguards are already in place to ensure that children are not coerced and that all religions are respected.
“What Sunrise has done for nearly 150 years is to create an environment where children receive holistic care: emotional, physical and spiritual,” Chitwood said. “I think it is safe to assume that children removed from their home because of abuse and neglect need holistic care, the kind of care provided by Kentucky Baptists through Sunrise. I’m concerned that the commonwealth’s settlement would throw cold water on the essential responsibility of spiritual nurture.”