Judge Charles Simpson of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky wrote in a July 5 ruling that plaintiffs in the 12-year-old case against Sunrise Children's Services can proceed in filing suit against the agency over allegations that it uses state funds to coerce children's religious beliefs.
Sunrise, which changed its name from Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children in 2007, had fought to have the case rejected in federal district court after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear it last year.
The case stems from a 2000 lawsuit brought by Alicia Pedreira, a former KBHC employee who was fired in 1998 after it was discovered she is a lesbian. Pedreira claimed discrimination by the agency, an allegation that was rejected in 2001.
Despite the discrimination claim being thrown out, a second claim that Sunrise uses state funds to promote religion among the children it serves was allowed to proceed.
Sunrise President Bill Smithwick estimated that 70 percent of the agency's $24 million annual budget comes from the Commonwealth of Kentucky in the form of reimbursement payments.
Smithwick said the contract between Sunrise and the state includes a provision that the agency address the spiritual needs of the children it serves without being coercive in doing so. Sunrise serves more than 2,000 children each year through its residential and foster-care programs.
"We are in compliance with our contract to the state to provide religious, spiritual opportunities to the kids. We do that," Smithwick told the Western Recorder, newsjournal of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. "We're not coercive. Faith, by definition, is a choice."
Smithwick said Judge Simpson's decision is "nothing new" for Sunrise, which has been battling the case for a dozen years. "This is just the case being revived again after it was denied a hearing at the Supreme Court," he said.
In 2008, Simpson threw out the case against Sunrise, citing the U.S. Supreme Court's decision a year earlier in the Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation case. That ruling stated that taxpayers could not challenge religious-based activities, such as faith-based social services, that are funded on the federal level.
Last year, Sunrise took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it declined to hear it, thus returning the case back to the U.S. District Court.
Smithwick acknowledged his disappointment in the decision but said he is confident Sunrise will ultimately claim victory in the prolonged case. As for when that will be, "I have no idea," he said. "All I can say is it's closer now to conclusion than it was 12 years ago."
Three other individuals are listed as plaintiffs in the case along with Pedreira. Among them is Paul Simmons, a former faculty member at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who is president of the Louisville chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Drew Nichter is news director of the Western Recorder (www.westernecorder.org), newsjournal of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
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