LOUISVILLE –According to Kentucky Baptist Convention President Dan Summerlin and KBC Executive Director-Treasurer Paul Chitwood, news that the board of directors of Sunrise Children’s Services will discuss changing agency practice to accept homosexual employees should be great concern to Kentucky Baptists.
Pastors of KBC-affiliated congregations received letters recently from Sunrise Children’s Services President Bill Smithwick, informing them that the ministry’s board has discussed the possibility of altering its anti-discrimination employment policy to extend to homosexuals.
According to an article in the Oct. 22 edition of Western Recorder, Sunrise’s board may vote on the issue as soon as its next regularly scheduled meeting which is Nov. 8.
In 1998, Sunrise, then known as Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, fired an employee when it became common knowledge that she was a lesbian. A legal battle ensued but Smithwick said publicly that the agency would not abandon the Judeo-Christian values of its founding.
A portion of the legal wrangling continues, but the courts threw out the former employee’s claim of discrimination by Sunrise.
Established in 1869 as a Louisville orphanage primarily for children displaced by the Civil War, Sunrise today cares for approximately 2,000 children annually through residential treatment, foster care and other programs located around the commonwealth.
Each year, messengers to the annual meeting of the KBC approve trustees and directors of 10 agencies and institutions affiliated with the convention, including those serving on Sunrise’s board. Those organizations also receive funding from Kentucky Baptists through the Cooperative Program.
Additionally, the Sunrise ministry has received support for decades from Kentucky Baptist churches and associations through the Thanksgiving Offering, Food Roundup and Mile of Pennies.
Still, according to Smithwick’s letter to pastors, such support today totals about $1 million compared to the approximately $26 million that Sunrise receives annually from the state and federal governments to care for abused and neglected children.
Chitwood reported on his blog Oct. 23 that he and Summerlin requested a meeting with Smithwick to discuss the possible change in the hiring practice, but Smithwick argued that such a meeting was premature because the Sunrise board had yet to make a decision.
The covenant agreement between KBC and Sunrise states that the 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 agreement also states 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.”
Summerlin, pastor of Lone Oak First Baptist Church, said he continues to pray for Sunrise board members, that they would make the courageous, if culturally unpopular, decision to maintain the current hiring practice.
“The key question is, do (Sunrise) trustees want to be a Baptist agency or a secular institution,” Summerlin said. “I pray they will consider their history and heritage as they seek an answer to that vital question.”
In his blog, Chitwood writes: “If 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.”
Helping children who are victims of physical or sexual abuse or neglect will continue to be a priority for Kentucky Baptists, Chitwood predicted.
“I am confident that we will always minister to hurting children and that we will do so through a ministry with biblical values,” he said. “There are many deserving and gospel-centered ministries in Kentucky that are in need of support.”
Chitwood added that any action Kentucky Baptists’ might take in reference to Sunrise will depend first on the decision that Sunrise Children’s Services Board of Directors make Nov. 8.