Suit fights tax funding of Baptist home

Plaintiffs including a former Baptist seminary professor claim that taxpayer funding for a pervasively sectarian ministry violates the separation of church and state.

By Bob Allen

Kentucky taxpayers, including a former longtime professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, renewed a legal challenge to taxpayer funding of a Baptist home that fired a staff member in 1998 after learning she is a lesbian after a federal judge ruled July 5 that the case could move forward.

Judge Charles Simpson III of the U.S. District Court of Western Kentucky said Alicia Pedreira, a former case worker at Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, now known as Sunrise Children’s Services, and three other plaintiffs could file a second amended complaint that her firing for religious reasons from a publicly funded position violated the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion.

The other plaintiffs include Paul Simmons, an ordained Baptist who taught Christian ethics at the Southern Baptist Convention seminary in Louisville for 23 years and former board member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Pedreira and Simmons, along with Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary professor Johanna W.H. Van Wuk-Bos and Unitarian Universalist minister Elwood Sturtevant, claim Kentucky’s practice of providing government funds to finance positions that are filled according to religious tenets “constitutes evidence of a violation of the Establishment Clause.”

They are asking the courts to declare unconstitutional the Commonwealth’s funding of “pervasively religious entities” without any restrictions or safeguards against those funds being used for religious indoctrination.

Pedreira claims she told her supervisor she is a lesbian before she applied for the family specialist position at Spring Meadows Children’s Home, and he still encouraged her to seek employment. She says she received “outstanding” performance reviews until after a photograph of her and her partner taken at an AIDS-awareness event appeared without her knowledge in an exhibit at the Kentucky State Fair.

She was fired Oct. 23, 1998, for the stated reason that “her admitted homosexual lifestyle is contrary to Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children's core values.” A statement provided to the media at the time said: “It is important that we stay true to our Christian values. Homosexuality is a lifestyle that would prohibit employment.”

The lawsuit says that Sunrise Children’s Services, founded in 1869 and historically financed primarily by contributions from Baptist churches, now receives most of its budget through contracts with the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The ministry website says it exists to provide “care and hope for hurting families and children through Christ-centered ministries” and describes it as a “ministry partner” of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

The plaintiffs contend that by continually funding an organization that hires and fires employees for religious reasons and incorporates Christian principles into every area of its work creates “public questioning of the Commonwealth’s neutrality on religious questions.”

In 2001, the same judge denied an earlier lawsuit by Predeira claiming religious discrimination, saying she was terminated because of her lifestyle and not her beliefs. Simpson said the new lawsuit can move forward, however, because it objects to the alleged use of taxpayer funds to advance religion.