Some Conflicts Never Die…

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.



  1. Just like in Indiana where HUGE sums of public money go to church schools that fire highly qualified gay/lesbian employees.

  2. Why are religious organizations exempt from civil rights laws?

    How much of the $12 MILLION tax dollars were paid by lesbians and gays “gay lifestyle” of living and working in the state of Kentucky?

    To quote Linda Ellerbee, “And so it goes!”

  3. How is this cycle of homophobic and racist hatred to be broken so long as generation after generation is educated in religions that teach such hatred as a tenant of their parent’s religion?

  4. I respect Sheila’s well argued position, and as both a straight white male and mainstream Protestant Methodist reasonably ‘good Christian’; I agree with the argument. As long as an employee meets the requirements of the assigned job assignment, preferences are checked at the door. It is not the role of the employer to advocate for the sexual preferences of the workforce. In return, it is not the role of an individual or group of emoyees to advocate for the sexual preferences for themselves and/or others while on the clock.

    Thoughtful discernment of Scripture in regards to efficacy of LGBTG, and presumably now nB, can and has been argued persuasively depending on the religious beliefs of participants in the debate. Some enter the process of discernment with closed arguments while others enter the discussion with minds. I suscribe through my chosen place of worship (the largest Methodist congregation in Indiana) the latter.

    When a religious entity enters into public space by accepting tax funds to render a service, the entity has crossed the line of separation of church and state to claim exemption from recognizing federal/state statutes that ensure fundamental human rights. “Render unto Ceasar that which belongs to Ceasar.”

  5. These lawsuits could be avoided by the IRS when the entity is being formed, but politicians have neutered the agency for decades. We can spend $800 billion on the military but can’t provide the IRS with adequate staffing to do their enforcement jobs.

    We need stricter codes for entity formation because there are way too many nonprofits in this country that should be paying taxes for violating existing tax codes and many more that were created intentionally that should not have been allowed at the onset.

    All these churches who get involved in politics should lose their exemption. Any political organization should be taxable. The Koch brothers set up is a farce, but they aren’t the only ones taking advantage. All of it is to maximize their profits, let them do what they want, and pay nothing to society (taxes) for general management of shared assets and services.

    I get sick of looking at it and lump it all under the heading of corruption. Some of it may pass the legal test, but it’s immoral. How has that happened? Man’s law is supposed to pick up where God’s law doesn’t reach.

    What makes me puke is the worst offenders are the self-righteous folks guided by the moral teaching of God’s laws. Hell, if they’re not going to follow God’s law, why do we bother with religions at all. Tax them all because they don’t deserve any exclusions. There’s nothing Holy about them.

  6. In my non-legal mind, the Constitution in total specifies that the law can be continuously updated to reflect the principles of freedom. Those include that freedom is reciprocal which ensures that all of we the people have equal freedom with each other and under the law. My freedom ends at yours and vice versa but we all are free from government regulation of our rights.

    That was a revolutionary view of what government could be. Many said that it could never provide sufficient stability among contentious humans.

    We thought at the beginning of my life that those issues were settled but maybe we spoke too soon.

  7. Employment Division v. Smith case was one of the worst cases handed down by the Supreme Court in the last 50 years. Scalia’s opinion effectively gutted the Free Exercise of Religion Clause, lowering it from a constitutional mandate to the level of an ordinary statute that can be overridden by a simple statute of general application. The case was such an abomination that conservative and liberal groups, included the ACLU, joined forces to overturn it legislatively. That led to Congress almost unanimously passed a federal RFRA. More than 30 states, by statute or judicial decree, followed suit in overriding the case at the state level.

  8. I wonder if a careful analysis of the work done by this same agency won’t reveal a pattern of racial discrimination as well? I only bring this up, because firmly held religious beliefs was one of the ongoing justifications for slavery in the past, and apparently other kinds of discrimination today.

    These guys deserve to be dropped like a hot potato and in a capitalist system, somebody will step into the void created by a $12 million opportunity.

  9. Yup! Some simply think that being a religious entity entitles them to be “More equal.” Sadly, there is much that goes on, has been going on, that tends to reinforce that mistaken notion.
    GWB, and his “Faith Based” program did nothing to dispel same.

  10. Do we know how they treat the children that are being cared for in their confines that maybe LGBTQ? The whole time I am reading your blog I am thinking about those children over the years who have found their way to their facility who were LGBT and wonder if there were discrimination with the care they received or worse.

  11. I like the way Mayor Pete handled the issue. An interviewer asked during his presidential campaign if he realized he was the first known candidate for president who was gay, and Pete answered: “Yeah, and I’ve got blue eyes, too.”

    This is the right perspective, one from which I have drawn my view of you can’t blame people for being what they are, black, white, straight, gay etc., they just are. I know Pete; he calls me dad. My daughter was and still is for Pete for president (someday), and I like him though I supported Warren for that office and both my daughter and I are now Biden converts since he is our president – whatever the deluded and the inciters may claim.

  12. I’m not the language police, but just a couple of points from an English teacher about how language shapes our narratives and viewpoints. “Gay rights” creates a special class of people and a special class of rights – – which of course creates pushback from opponents. “Civil rights of gay people” is a more accurate context and description. Just as we seem to be learning that the phrase “the sale of slaves” created a special class of people exempt from humanity, and today we are starting to call it as it is/was/is “the sale of people into slavery”. I’m also waiting for the euphemism “sex trafficking” to change to “the kidnapping and sale of girls and young women for rape slavery.”

  13. Thanks K. Reiter for the language lesson. I agree with you. We need to add the word people. Sexual orientation needs to be an adjective not a noun, in my opinion since I am not just a lesbian. I really like your language for “sex traficking” because it reveals the truth!

    I don’t know what happened to the founders ‘ assertion that religon(s) and the state should be separated. To me, any religous supported organization should NOT receive government money if our government does not want to violate the separation of church and state.

    Religion has been used to justify misogyny(read Judges 19), racism, slavery, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and of course trans and homophobia. All those fearful bigotries are created by the old animal, instinctual brain in us. That part of the brain often uses religous language to justify its fearful animosity. I don’t really consider any of the “sacred” scriptures the “Word of God.” Nope. It’s people writing down what they believe God wanted them to do. Judges 19 is an ugly moment in history, not the word of God. I want to believe that as humans become more “enlightened” and move more towards a reverence of all life(including plants, animals, ecosystems.) that we will begin to let go of our fear of one another and see that we are all one. I happen to believe that as we evolve , we will understand the so called “Word of God” in a more enlightened manner. We have made progress and still have a long way to go.

    And in the meantime, I am learning from a tree botanist that trees collaborate through the fungi on their root systems. It looks just like a neural network. Yup, I am a tree hugger.

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