Back in 2000, I wrote a couple of newspaper columns and an academic article about litigation involving the Kentucky Baptist Children’s Home. The Children’s Home had fired a youth counselor solely because she was a lesbian; they admitted that she was an excellent counselor, but justified the firing by explaining that “the gay lifestyle” (discovered because her picture appeared in media snapped at a Pride parade) was inconsistent with their theological beliefs.
Ordinarily, this firing would not have given rise to a lawsuit-even in those few states that had then extended civil rights protections to gays and lesbians, religious organizations were (and are) exempt from civil rights laws. But the Home was essentially funded by the state of Kentucky. Some $12 million of its $15 million dollar annual budget came from state tax dollars paying for the children placed in the facility by the state. The lawsuit challenged the propriety of using tax dollars to discriminate.
The case ran into some technical issues not germane to the principle being litigated, and I lost track of its subsequent path. (A very similar case from Georgia was settled when that state agreed to abide by the Constitution.) Evidently, the Kentucky Home did not lose its state support–nor its insistence on disadvantaging members of the LGBTQ community–because AP has reported on the emergence of a similar conflict between the Home–now renamed Sunrise Children’s Services–and the state.
A cultural clash pitting religious beliefs against gay rights has jeopardized Kentucky’s long-running relationship with a foster care and adoption agency affiliated with the Baptist church that serves some of the state’s most vulnerable children.
The standoff revolves around a clause in a new contract with the state that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and that Sunrise Children’s Services is refusing to sign.
It’s another round in a broader fight in states and the courts over religious liberty and LGBTQ rights, including whether businesses can refuse to provide services for same-sex weddings. An upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Pennsylvania case could be decisive in the Kentucky clash; it’s reviewing a refusal by Philadelphia Catholic Social Services to work with same-sex couples as foster parents.
The original case–twenty-one years ago–involved the home’s refusal to employ LGBTQ staff members, no matter how professionally competent. I was unable to determine whether that situation has changed, but this time, the argument is about the agency’s refusal to place children with same-sex foster or adoptive parents.
Sunrise wants its religious beliefs to exempt it from a law that applies to other agencies doing business with the state, a requirement imposed by what lawyers call a law of general application. It wants to continue benefitting from tax dollars paid by all Kentucky residents, gay and straight, while picking and choosing which rules it will follow.
That isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.
“If Sunrise doesn’t want to abide by that, that’s fine. They shouldn’t have access to state money, state contracts or children in the state’s care,” said Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville-based gay rights advocacy group.
Hartman said he worries LGBTQ children in Sunrise’s care are “deeply closeted,” hiding their sexual orientation out of fear of “indoctrination and proselytization.”
Whether that fear is justifiable or not is beside the point. It was actually Justice Scalia–no champion of secularism–who wrote the decision in Employment Division v. Smith, confirming that religious belief does not exempt citizens from compliance with laws of general application.
Sunrise is perfectly free to follow its theological principles. It isn’t free to demand continued public funding at the same time it is refusing to follow the rules that govern distribution of that funding.
I sometimes wonder whether America has turned into a version of Animal Farm, where everyone is equal, but some folks (“good Christians”) think they’re entitled to be more equal than others.