"I would rather homosexuals see the love of God through us than be denied employment by us," Bill Smithwick, president of Sunrise Children's Services, said in an Aug. 16 PowerPoint presentation to the agency's trustees. "I would rather see the ministry continue to help kids and share the Gospel than close."
Trustees were scheduled to vote on the proposal during their Nov. 8 meeting. One trustee, Rick Fyffe, resigned in protest. Another, Stan Spees, is being threatened with removal from the board for voicing his opposition publicly to the change.
For more than a decade, Sunrise has been embroiled in a lawsuit surrounding its firing of a homosexual employee. Smithwick has long stated that Sunrise would not change its employment practices.
In Smithwick's PowerPoint presentation, given at a special called board meeting, he told trustees that "federal protection for homosexuals in the workplace as a 'civil right' just as race, gender, national origin, etc., is certain to become law sooner than later. Sunrise will comply or lose."
While asserting his personal opposition to homosexuality and his commitment to share the Gospel with children, Smithwick told the board that Sunrise likely has a small number of homosexuals currently on staff, according to the PowerPoint presentation. Then he presented options for handling the situation:
-- Follow current policy and terminate the employees. Then refuse to hire homosexuals even when doing so becomes a condition of receiving federal funding.
-- Terminate the employees according to current policy, wait until the government mandates a change, then comply.
-- Change the employment policy now.
Smithwick advocated the third option, arguing that Sunrise cannot operate without government funds and that it risks losing major secular sponsors if it fires homosexuals.
"A church or religious organization can hire all Christians and hold them to their standards," Smithwick said, "but they cannot accept state/federal monies. Sunrise cannot meet the needs of today's abused and neglected children without public assistance."
Last year Sunrise received just over $1 million, about 5 percent of its $22 million budget, from the Kentucky convention through Cooperative Program funds and an annual Thanksgiving offering, according to the Western Recorder, the KBC newsjournal. Most of Sunrise's remaining funds come from the government, an Oct. 31 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.
Only four or five out of the 23 Baptist children's homes affiliated with state Baptist conventions do not accept government funds, Bryant Millsaps, president of the Tennessee Baptist Children's Homes, told Baptist Press.
It would be "practically impossible" for a Baptist children's services ministry to begin refusing government funds after receiving them for many years, Millsaps said, adding that TBCH has not received any government funds during its 122 years of existence.
"Most agencies who get dependent on those large sums of money" cannot "raise the funds to cover that loss, especially in these times," Millsaps said. Receiving federal money is "almost like being dependent on a drug. You get hooked on it, and getting unhooked is very, very difficult. And in some cases it's impossible."
Millsaps stressed that refusing government funding may not be the right decision for every children's services ministry. But he said TBHC's decision not to receive government money is intended to preserve the ministry's autonomy to operate according to its Christian principles.
"Our clear willingness to depend totally on God and His people is why we're still open and operating today," Millsaps said.
Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, called in an Oct. 23 blog post for Sunrise to take a similar step of faith, though he admitted it would require the agency "to dramatically scale back its work in order to be faithful to Scripture and to model biblical values in front of hurting children."
"In addition to what it would mean for the kids, another great tragedy of Smithwick's recommendation is that it ignores the investment of untold tens of millions of Baptist dollars and surrenders the very reason Sunrise came into existence as Kentucky Baptists' gospel-centered ministry to orphans and neglected children," Chitwood wrote. "The Covenant Agreement between the KBC and Sunrise states, 'This relationship is built upon many years of faithful commitment and trust by many individuals and by many millions of dollars contributed by Kentucky Baptists in support.'
"The Covenant Agreement also stipulates that Sunrise 'shall maintain its distinctive Baptist character as set forth in its purpose and the support of the Kentucky Baptist Convention is based upon faithful adherence to that purpose.' If the trustees decide to follow Smithwick and surrender biblical values to maintain government funding, then clearly they will have forsaken the Baptist character of Sunrise and become the equivalent of any secular corporation that contracts with the state to provide childcare."
Chitwood said he and KBC President Dan Summerlin requested a meeting with Smithwick to discuss the matter. Smithwick declined to meet with them, saying, "We will communicate, in full detail, any warranted board actions relevant to the KBC should any be taken," according to Chitwood's blog.
Smithwick declined to comment to the Western Recorder for an Oct. 24 article. He told the Recorder, "There's nothing that Kentucky Baptists need to know.... I will not discuss what our board is talking about in private with anyone."
The following week Smithwick said in a statement to the Courier-Journal that "changing our hiring practice will have no impact on our daily care for kids at Sunrise."
He added, "The core question is not about separation of church and state or government money. The question is whether we will walk away from the pain, suffering, loneliness, and brokenness of the kids we serve and have served since 1869."
Former trustee Fyffe, a member of Oakland Avenue Baptist Church in Catlettsburg, Ky., objected in his resignation letter to compromising biblical principles to secure funding.
"Once entities see Sunrise's willingness to change and/or adapt to today's liberal agenda in order to secure funding, everything else is on the table," Fyffe wrote, according to the Recorder. "Regardless of the views and explanations being offered, Sunrise has become a debtor to the state and must operate accordingly.
Spees, the other trustee to speak out, agreed.
"Some might say that we can concede the homosexuality issue and continue to teach Christian values on all other points," he said in a letter to fellow trustees, according to the Recorder. "I ask, what happens when the government says we have to concede those points too? Do we surrender our Christianity one 'minor' point at a time? On what point do we finally say, "This is where we will take a stand'?"
Smithwick compared changing Sunrise's employment policy to Christian missionaries in Muslim countries wearing head coverings out of respect for Islam.
"Should we not go as missionaries because to acknowledge the beliefs of Muslims? Or is the greater good to go and share the Gospel despite acknowledging Islam?" he said.
If trustees believe missionaries should wear head coverings, they should also vote to change Sunrise's employment policy, he said.
Chitwood, in a Nov. 1 statement to Baptist Press, noted that Smithwick's example of contextualization in missions "compares apples to oranges. Indeed, a female Christian missionary in the Muslim world might wear a jihab but we don't hire Muslims to be Christian missionaries. How I wish Smithwick would have been willing and desirous to meet with Kentucky Baptists or their elected leadership before attempting to secretly change the biblical convictions that have guided the organization since its founding 154 years ago. Surely we could have found a better way to walk forward together."
Chitwood urged Kentucky Baptists to pray for Sunrise trustees by name and contact them in advance of the Nov. 8 meeting. He provided links to their names on his blog.
"Sunrise has always been different from secular caregivers because of the biblical values that undergird the ministry and are modeled by the caregivers," Chitwood noted. "Hurting children need that from Kentucky Baptists. When the government will no longer help fund it, I pray Sunrise will continue to give gospel-centered care, even if it means a significant reduction in their budget. Either way, I am confident Kentucky Baptists will always minister to hurting children and will do so through a ministry with biblical values."
David Roach is a writer in Shelbyville, Ky. 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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