Judge OKs settlement of Baptist home lawsuit

Sunrise Children’s Services plans to challenge a ruling that settles a 14-year-old lawsuit over public funding of faith-based organizations.

By Bob Allen

A federal judge ruled June 30 that a Kentucky Baptist ministry cannot prevent settlement of a long-running legal battle over the establishment of religion simply because it has benefitted from state contracts in the past.

judge charles SimpsonU.S. District Judge Charles Simpson in Louisville, Ky., said Sunrise Children’s Services may not like terms of a settlement ending a 14-year-old battle between Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Commonwealth of Kentucky over the use of public funds by groups that proselytize but has no legal right to interfere if the two parties agree.

While the agency formerly known as Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children might like “a day in court” to challenge allegations that it improperly used government funds to proselytize, the judge said, the only legal claim against them — of job discrimination for firing a lesbian case worker in 1998 — was dismissed in 2009.

After the Establishment Clause claim was returned to a district court in 2011, the remaining parties began to negotiate a settlement. The two sides reached a compromise in 2013, whereby the state agreed to change its child-care system to ensure that faith-based groups that contract with the state do not pressure children in their care to participate in religious services and that they give religious materials only to those who want them.”

Sunrise objected that the settlement forced them into a “Hobson’s Choice” between accepting terms of the new agreement or foregoing contracts with the state that provide essential funding for its continued operation.

Judge Simpson, however, said that is not a “Hobson’s Choice,” but rather “a business choice.”

“The agreement imposes no obligations on Sunrise whatsoever,” he ruled. “Sunrise and all other child-caring and child-placing entities who choose to enter into PCC contracts with the Commonwealth in the future will be subject to various new terms in these contracts. These contracts may be accepted or not, at the discretion of each entity.”

Alex Luchenitser, Americans United’s associate legal director, said the ruling should put an end to the long-running dispute.

“We’re pleased that the court has allowed this settlement to proceed,” Luchenitser said in a press release. “The settlement will protect taxpayers from being forced to subsidize religious indoctrination, and it will protect vulnerable children from religious coercion, discrimination and proselytization.”

Last year Sunrise CEO Bill Smithwick suggested that given a trend of courts increasingly viewing same-sex marriage as a civil right, the agency might want to consider relaxing its ban in hiring gays instead of risking the loss of state funding that enables it to minister to children in need.

The Kentucky Baptist Convention responded with a symbolic no-confidence vote for Smithwick at the 2013 annual meeting. Smithwick later resigned. In February Kentucky Baptists announced a special offering to make up a $5 million shortfall in funding since the controversy erupted.

Last year Sunrise received $26 million from the state. The Kentucky Baptist Convention contributes $1 million a year to Sunrise and elects its entire board of trustees.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Sunrise intends to appeal Simpson’s ruling to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.