Children's agency case 'far from over'

Baptist Press
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Posted: Oct 04, 2013 5:22 PM
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) -- Despite reports that Kentucky is close to reaching an agreement that would restrict child care agencies' religious activities, the president of Baptist-supported Sunrise Children's Services says the case is far from over.

Kentucky is a defendant in a employment discrimination lawsuit filed in 2000 by Alicia Pedreira, a residential counselor fired by Sunrise in 1998 after her lesbian practices became public knowledge. After a federal court dismissed Pedreira's lawsuit, she and three others pressed a separate claim, arguing that state funding of agencies that teach religious beliefs violates the First Amendment.

Sunrise Children's Services President and CEO Bill Smithwick counters that Sunrise is not guilty of coercing children to participate in religious activities.

The proposed settlement involving the state would ensure that religiously-affiliated organizations receiving state funds neither pressure children to participate in religious activities nor read religious materials.

"We don't agree to the settlement agreement that assumes Sunrise is guilty of these allegations," Smithwick said. "It's never been proven in court that we are."

Nor will the case end soon. When the settlement agreement between the plaintiffs and the state was filed in federal court in September, Sunrise attorney John Sheller filed a new motion to dismiss the case. A response is not expected before late October.

Sheller questions the plaintiffs' trying to change the state's method of operations. The plaintiffs' previous argument involved the use of taxpayer funds, but now they are seeking to dictate how Kentucky operates its child care system, he said.

"They shifted gears earlier this year by reaching a settlement agreement that will be enforced by the court," Sheller said. "It's a consent decree without us agreeing to it.

"What will change is the feature of how the program will operate. In light of this change, we're saying that it's not a taxpayer (funding) case anymore," Sheller said. "They don't have the right to change the day-to-day operation of the program."

The dispute won't have any impact on Sunrise's current budget, since its current fiscal year began Sept. 1. But, if the state ever enforces new regulations, Sunrise will be forced to comply, Smithwick said.

"We couldn't operate without it," he said of state funding. "We take care primarily of state agency children. If we lose our contract, we're out of business. So would we have to agree with the consent form? Yeah, we would have to sign it like everyone else."

This year, Sunrise will receive about $305,000 from the Kentucky Baptist Cooperative Program. Total support from all Baptist contributions is just over $1 million, or 3.8 percent of Sunrise's budget, Smithwick said.

Smithwick suggested Baptists not just pray, but write checks.

"I'm serious," he said. "Prayers are good and we appreciate them, but what we need from Kentucky Baptists is financial support."

Ken Walker of Huntington, W.Va., wrote this article for the Western Recorder, the official newsjournal of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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