Ministry says lawsuit settlement unfair

Sunrise Children’s Services wants a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit being settled over alleged violations of the separation of church and state.

By Bob Allen

A Kentucky Baptist Convention agency claims settlement of a 13-year lawsuit between a former children’s home employee fired because she is a lesbian and the Commonwealth of Kentucky convicts it without a trial of violating the religious liberty of children placed in its care.

Alicia Pedreira and other Kentucky taxpayers including Paul Simmons, an ordained Baptist minister and former ethics professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, signed off Sept. 19 on final wording of a legal settlement agreed to in principle in March. The following day they asked the U.S. District Court for Western Kentucky to dismiss the case under terms of the agreement.

Lawyers for Sunrise Children’s Services, as the Baptist home is known today, filed a lengthy brief arguing that while not a party in the settlement, the ministry will be forced to comply with new rules without its consent.

The settlement requires the state to extensively monitor state-funded child-care agencies to make sure they are not religiously proselytizing or coercing the children in their care. It singles out Sunrise for seven years of unique scrutiny, based on allegations the ministry is “pervasively sectarian” and has engaged in improper religious activities.

pedreiraSunrise says additional scrutiny that will not be imposed on the other private agencies contracting with the Commonwealth gives them a competitive disadvantage and creates a public perception that Sunrise infringed upon the religious freedoms of the children entrusted to its care and violated state and federal laws prohibiting religious coercion.

For the first time in the 16 years he has been in the job, Sunrise CEO Bill Smithwick said in a court affidavit that he was recently denied a loan unless he would commit to abiding by terms of the settlement agreement.

Sunrise claims the additional monitoring discriminates against the ministry on the basis of its religious affiliation.

Established to address needs at the end of the Civil War, Sunrise Children’s Services opened in 1869 as the Louisville Baptist Orphans Home. Today it is the state’s largest private child-care provider, offering a network of residential programs across the state as well as family foster care and treatment for mental health.

Today the agency’s largest funding source is reimbursements for services contracted with the state. About 1 percent of its $24 million annual budget is from the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s Cooperative Program unified funding plan.

In 1998, the agency fired Pedreira from her job as a therapist and residential counselor after discovering that she was a lesbian when a photo of her and her partner appeared in a display at the Kentucky State Fair.

Pedreira sued her former employer claiming both employment discrimination and giving taxpayer funds to agencies that discriminate against gay employees and teach sectarian beliefs violates the First Amendment’s ban on establishing religion.

The district court dismissed the lawsuit in 2008, but the following year the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed part of the ruling and reinstated the Establishment Clause claim. From there the legal dispute twisted and turned toward a second amendment complaint filed in 2012 by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU that was settled in negotiations already underway since the fall of 2011.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs deny the settlement imposes new obligations on Sunrise Children’s Services without its consent. “Certain ‘obligations’ may arise in the event that Sunrise chooses to enter into contracts with the Commonwealth in the future,” they argue in a legal document. “These ‘obligations’ would not [be] imposed by operation of the Settlement Agreement, but rather would be voluntarily assumed by Sunrise as a result of the changes in the Commonwealth’s contracts and procedures.”