A federal appeals court has thrown out the 2013 settlement of a lawsuit challenging state funding of a Kentucky Baptist children’s ministry, saying a judge should decide if court-ordered monitoring of alleged violations of the separation of church and state by Sunrise Children’s Services is fair.
A divided three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Oct. 6 that a lower court erred in allowing plaintiffs including Baptist minister and former seminary professor Paul Simmons and the Commonwealth of Kentucky to settle a dispute dating back to the 1998 firing of a lesbian employee by the Kentucky Baptist Convention entity then known as Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children.
Terms of the agreement applied to all nonprofit organizations applying for government grants but singled out Sunrise for special scrutiny because of allegations in the lawsuit that the Baptist agency pressured children in its care to become practicing Christians. Sunrise denied those allegations but was not given an opportunity to sign off on the agreement.
Lawyers for Sunrise said the settlement subjects the agency “to unique reputational harm” and “denies Sunrise a chance to clear its name.”
The appellate court agreed, vacating the June 30, 2014, order by U.S. District Judge Charles Simpson in Louisville, Ky., that Sunrise may not like terms of the settlement but had no legal right to interfere if the two parties in the lawsuit agreed. The majority ordered the lower court to decide “whether, among other things, the settlement agreement is fair to Sunrise.”
In a dissenting opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black said the district judge already determined the settlement agreement to be fair and that even if it ordered a review, the appeals court should not instruct a lower court on what legal issues to decide.
Kentucky contracts with Sunrise for residential and foster care of children who are wards of the state. According to the appeals court opinion, taxpayer funds provide 65 percent of Sunrise’s revenue.
After a dozen years of defending lawsuits stemming from the firing of a case worker after she was outed as a lesbian, Sunrise President Bill Smithwick suggested in 2013 that trustees should drop the ban on hiring gays, because sooner or later it would probably disqualify the agency from receiving government grants.
The Kentucky Baptist Convention responded unfavorably, passing a symbolic no-confidence vote in Smithwick’s leadership at the KBC annual meeting. Smithwick resigned in December 2013, saying he didn’t want controversy over his leadership to hinder Sunrise’s fundraising efforts. Sunrise trustees turned to veteran nonprofit leader Dale Suttles as interim president and made his selection permanent this past August.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Alicia Pedreira, who lost her job as a therapist and residential counsellor at Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children after a photo of her and her lesbian partner became public in a display at the Kentucky State Fair.
Pedreira lost a lawsuit claiming employment discrimination, but she joined a group of taxpayers including Paul Simmons, an ordained Baptist minister and former ethics professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary active in Americans United for Separation of Church and State in a claim that taxpayer funding of an agency teaching sectarian beliefs violated the First Amendment’s ban on establishing religion.
That dispute twisted and turned through the legal system for a dozen years before a second amendment complaint filed in 2012 by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU was settled in negotiations that started in the fall of 2011.
Simmons taught Christian ethics at Southern Seminary from 1970 until his resignation in 1993. After teaching as an adjunct professor at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary and the University of Louisville, in 1997 he became a clinical professor in the University of Louisville Department of Family and Geriatric Medicine. (BNG)