LOUISVILLE, Ky. (ABP)—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.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State announced a settlement after Kentucky’s government agreed to change its child-care system to ensure faith-based groups that contract with the state do not pressure children in their care to participate in religious services and give religious materials only to those who want them.
Along with protecting against religious coercion, the settlement requires that prior to placing a child with a religiously affiliated child-care agency or foster home, the state will inform children and parents of the provider’s religious affiliation. If the child or parent objects, the state must, when possible, provide an alternative placement.
“We are pleased with this settlement,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United. “It will ensure that vulnerable youths in Kentucky’s child-care system are free to follow and practice their own faiths, or no faith at all, and that no religion is forced upon them.”
Daniel Mach of the ACLU’s program on freedom of religion and belief said the agreement “promotes the basic constitutional principle that taxpayer funds should never be used to underwrite religious indoctrination.”
The agency indicated it intends to seek a final ruling on a motion filed last November asking the court to recognize 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. “The commonwealth’s existing system complies with this requirement.”
Claims of coercion
According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, state records released during the case found children at the homes said in dozens of exit interviews they were forced into Christian or specifically Baptist practices or discouraged from practicing their own religion.
Sunrise denies 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 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.
Firing of lesbian employee
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. “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 added he believes adequate safeguards already are in place to ensure 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.”