Religion in Society

Lawsuit Progresses Against Religious Youth Home

| by AUSCS

A federal appeals court ruled that a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State challenging government funding of a religious group’s youth home in Kentucky can go forward.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling and ruled that taxpayers have standing to bring a legal challenge to the state’s decision to fund Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children (since renamed Sunrise Children's Services), which indoctrinated children placed under state care with its religious beliefs.

“This Baptist agency has made no secret of the fact that it was evangelizing children under the state’s care in complete disregard of the Constitution’s ban on government-sponsored religion,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “We’re extremely pleased that the court has made it clear that taxpayers have the right to challenge government when it promotes religious doctrine.”

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of several taxpayers and Alicia Pedreira, a lesbian who was fired from the group home after someone at the agency saw a photograph of Pedreira and her partner at the state fair. In addition to the constitutional challenge, Pedreira had also claimed that the agency illegally discriminated against her because she did not conform to the religious beliefs of the agency.

Although the appeals court dismissed that claim, the court said that she would be allowed to present evidence of her firing to prove that the funding of the agency violated the Constitution’s prohibition of religious funding.

“While I’m disappointed that Baptist Homes won’t be held liable for firing me, today’s decision helps ensure that government funds won’t be given to employers who discriminate based on their religious beliefs about sexual orientation, and that’s why I brought this case,” said Pedreira, who after struggling for years to get her career back on track, is currently working as a counselor in Louisville.

Filed in April 2000, this lawsuit has been closely watched by many because it underscores the problems that arise when government funds religious organizations to perform their functions.

“The government should be helping to end discrimination against gay people, not funding it,” said Ken Choe, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project. “While today’s decision gives taxpayers recourse when the government oversteps the line in funding religiously affiliated service providers, this case illustrates all too well what can go wrong when the government fails to ensure appropriate safeguards.”

Added Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, who argued the appeal before the court, “This decision puts the brakes on the Religious Right’s efforts to keep taxpayers out of court in order to allow unfettered public funding of religious indoctrination. Proselytizing groups should not be able to get away with using government money illegally because they think that no one can sue them.”

The court noted that reviews conducted by a private company of Baptist Homes “contain 296 interview responses from youth describing [Baptist Homes’] religious practices as coercive.” The court also quoted a Baptist Homes annual report as stating, “The angels rejoiced last year as 244 of our children made decisions about their relationships with Jesus Christ.”

The case is returned to the district court for trial, but other appeals are possible.