LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) -- A Kentucky Baptist children's agency has chosen not to take part in a "tentative" settlement between the state of Kentucky and Americans United for Separation of Church and State after years of litigation regarding child care and religion.

The Kentucky Baptist Convention's executive director applauded Sunrise Children's Services' decision not to participate in the proposed settlement and called on Kentucky Baptists to rally around their child care agency.

"The plaintiffs' declaration of victory is as premature as it is inaccurate," according to a statement from Sunrise released by the agency's attorney, John Sheller. Sunrise is awaiting a court decision regarding a summary judgment motion that was filed in November.

Americans United announced March 20 that Kentucky officials have agreed to change child care policies to ensure that religiously-affiliated organizations that receive state funds do not pressure children in their care to participate in religious activities or distribute unwanted religious material to them. The settlement still has to be approved by a federal judge.

The proposed settlement stems from a 13-year legal battle between Americans United, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, and Sunrise Children's Service over whether state funds were being used for religious indoctrination and proselytizing at Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, now named Sunrise. The Baptist-affiliated agency has repeatedly denied religious coercion takes place at any of its facilities.

"Rather than responding to our motion, which would finally put this lawsuit to rest, the plaintiffs instead sought a separate peace with the commonwealth that imposes unnecessary new burdens on Sunrise and the other agencies that contract with the commonwealth," Sheller said. "But after 13 years of litigation, we deserve a ruling on the merits of our case."

In the summary judgment motion, Sheller explained, Sunrise has asked the court to rule that the commonwealth's partial reimbursements to Sunrise for the secular services it provides to children who are wards of the commonwealth do not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

"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," Sheller said.

The dispute between Americans United and Sunrise Children's Services dates back to a 2000 lawsuit following a decision by the then-Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children to fire Alicia Pedreira, a residential counselor, in 1998 after leaders learned she was a lesbian.

Though Pedreira's discrimination claim was denied in 2001, she and three other plaintiffs continued legal action. Under a separate claim, they said state funding of agencies that teach religious beliefs to children violates the First Amendment.

In addition to prohibiting agencies and foster families from pressuring children to participate in religious activities, the accord struck with Kentucky's Cabinet for Health and Family Services further requires exit interviews be conducted by caseworkers concerning religious activities and accommodations of child care agencies -- specifically at Sunrise Children Services for seven years.

"We are pleased with this settlement," said Alex Luchenister, 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."

Sunrise, however, has filed a motion to have the case dismissed and expects a favorable ruling, according to its attorney.

While Sunrise doesn't necessarily object to certain aspects of the proposed settlement, it does object to being singled out. "The idea of coercing children in religious matters is something that Sunrise has never done from the beginning," Sheller stated.

In its statement, Sunrise objected to "mischaracterizations" that children "feel pressured to accept a certain set of beliefs in exchange for help" from Sunrise.

KBC Executive Director Paul Chitwood applauded Sunrise Children's Services for refusing to go along with the commonwealth's settlement, having been singled out from other private, faith-based care providers.

"Protections already are in place to ensure that a child is not coerced, and that his cultural and religious backgrounds are respected," he noted, urging Kentucky Baptists to rally behind their child care agency through prayer, financial support and becoming foster parents.

"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 Children's Services.

"I'm concerned that the commonwealth's settlement would throw cold water on the essential responsibility of spiritual nurture," Chitwood said.

Todd Deaton is editor of the Western Recorder, online at westernrecorder.org.

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