Kentucky settling lawsuit over Baptist children's homes

Kentucky has agreed to clamp down on proselytizing of children placed by the state in religiously affiliated care facilities, as part of its tentative settlement of a long-running federal lawsuit.

The settlement, if approved by a federal judge, would end the portion of a lawsuit filed in 2000 that challenged state funding of the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, alleging that taxpayer dollars were being used to pay for religious indoctrination of children from troubled backgrounds placed in group homes.

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 were discouraged from practicing their own religion.

Although the state and the Baptist organization, now called Sunrise Children’s Services, have denied that religious coercion was taking place in the homes, the settlement calls for a series of policies to make sure it doesn’t happen.

“It’s a very strong agreement,” said Alex Luchenitser of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented four plaintiffs — a former employee fired in 1998 because she was a lesbian and three ministers, all of whom sued as taxpayers alleging public money was sponsoring religious activity. “We feel it will protect the religious rights of children throughout the commonwealth.”


The settlement, which is between four plaintiffs and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services — awaits formal drafting of state policies and a judge’s approval. Some of its new rules would:

• Explicitly ban any state-funded home from pressuring a child to participate in religious activities. It would ban giving them religious materials or putting religious items in their private rooms against their will. It would require agencies to provide children access to religious observances and materials of their faith.

• Require exit interviews of child clients, and in particular require the state to provide the plaintiffs’ attorneys with documentation of how Sunrise is complying.

• Require the state to inform parents if a child is being placed in a religiously affiliated home and, if the parents object, to try to find an alternative placement if feasible.

• Make similar requirements of foster-home placements done through faith-based and other private agencies under state contract.

The settlement was confirmed in a document — the 500th in the lawsuit — filed Tuesday with the U.S. District Court for Western Kentucky.

Challenge coming

But Sunrise — which receives millions of dollars a year for operating group homes for children from abusive or other troubled settings and provides foster-care placement — is refusing to take part in the settlement. Instead, it is preparing to challenge aspects of it and to ask a judge to dismiss the lawsuit in its favor.

Sunrise recently filed a motion for summary judgment to have the case dismissed, but the plaintiffs and the state are asking a federal magistrate judge to delay that and other proceedings, pending the settlement.

John Sheller, attorney for Sunrise, said it deserves a ruling in its favor. “That’s why we’re in the case,” he said, adding that the agency doesn’t object to aspects of the settlement. “The idea of coercing children in religious matters is something that Sunrise has never done from the beginning.”

But he said it does plan to raise questions about other parts — for example, the requirement that the state specifically provide the plaintiffs reports monitoring Sunrise’s compliance.

“We object to being singled out,” Sheller said.

Sunrise’s 2011 annual report said it served nearly 2,000 children. The state Department for Community Based Services currently has agreements with 49 agencies operating 153 licensed programs to provide private child care in foster- or group-home settings, according to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Original lawsuit

The lawsuit initially was filed by Alicia Pedreira and other taxpayers after her 1998 firing.

She had been working as a family specialist at the Spring Meadows group home operated by the agency, until a picture of her with her same-sex partner at the time was displayed in a Kentucky State Fair photo exhibit.

Pedreira’s wrongful-dismissal claim — that the Baptist agency’s refusal to employ a lesbian amounted to religious discrimination — was denied in 2001. But the lawsuit continued on another prong — that state funding of the agency amounted to a violation of the First Amendment prohibition against government sponsorship of religion.

“Overall, it’s a sense of relief,” Pedreira said Wednesday of the settlement. “Whenever you shine light on anything, then it’s less likely that evil will live there or that bad things will happen. ... That means people are going to be on their best behavior. Hopefully that best behavior will become a habit.”

Fight worth it

Pedreira — now 50 and an HIV-prevention educator for Louisville metro government — said it was worth it to persist in the suit long after her discrimination claim was dismissed.

“I felt it was unfair to me personally and not fair to the children either. Who stands up for them? That was my job as a therapist, to help them.”

Three other plaintiffs, the Revs. Johanna W.H. Van Wijk-Bos, Paul Simmons and Elwood Sturtevant, also joined the lawsuit, challenging the state funding. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky also represented them.

Sunrise is affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, the state’s largest religious denomination and itself an affiliate of the national Southern Baptist Convention. Sunrise traces its roots to an orphanage started in Louisville following the Civil War.

Representatives of the state and Baptist Homes say that the agency’s policy was never to proselytize its clients and that violations, if any, were rare compared with the agency’s large caseload.

Defenders also said the agency’s programs often scored higher than the state average on scores ranking how they respected children’s cultural and religious backgrounds.

In a statement issued late Wednesday, the cabinet said the pending settlement “will ensure that private child-care facilities will respect the right of children to practice the religion of their choice.”