A religious group is threatening to sue the state of Kentucky over a year-old policy that prohibits anti-gay comments to youths at the state's juvenile detention centers.
The Liberty Counsel, based in Lynchburg, Va., says it wants the policy revoked by Friday. It also wants the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice to reinstate David Wells, a volunteer Baptist minister who, on July 7, was asked to leave the Warren Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Bowling Green.
Wells told state officials he couldn't comply with their April 2014 anti-discrimination policy requiring "fair and equal treatment without bias" for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and intersex juveniles."
Under the policy, detention center staff and volunteers cannot tell the juveniles "that they are abnormal, deviant, sinful or that they should change their sexual orientation or gender identity," according to a copy of the policy, attached to the Liberty Counsel's July 23 warning letter to Juvenile Justice Commissioner Bob Hayter.
Restricting the free speech of a Baptist minister is a violation of the federal and state constitutions, Liberty Counsel attorney Richard Mast Jr. wrote to Hayter. As he counseled young offenders, some of whom had been sexually abused or were sexual abusers themselves, Wells would tell them what the Bible said about homosexuality, Mast wrote.
"It is not 'hatred' or 'bias' to lovingly point out the harms of homosexuality, and the power of Christ to change lives, should the occasion require it," Mast wrote.
Wells was traveling Monday and could not be reached for comment. Pastor J. Dale Massengale of Pleasant View Baptist Church, in Breckinridge County, said Wells leads his church's ministry at the detention center, where they counsel children as young as 8 and 9 years old. The church has been active at the detention center for 13 years without any previous complaints, Massengale said.
Many youths in custody are sexually confused and need to be educated about "unnatural affection or, as it's cataloged in the Scripture, sodomy," Massengale said.
"We're dealing with juveniles who have been prostituted since they were infants because their mothers needed money for drugs, or who have been sodomized all their lives. They feel like this is the only life they've ever known," Massengale said. "Under this policy, we can't even go in there and read the Bible to them to give them a message of hope."
The Liberty Counsel also represents Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who is being sued for refusing to issue marriage licenses following the U.S. Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage last month. A judge's decision in that case is expected next month.
The Department of Juvenile Justice enacted its anti-discrimination policy last year to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which requires a "zero-tolerance policy against any form of sexual abuse or harassment by staff, volunteers or contractors," department spokeswoman Stacy Flooden said.
"There are no other state agencies with a policy on this issue because DJJ is the only agency with facilities that house youth, and therefore it really is unique to us," Flooden said. "There are other states that have similar policy."
Although individuals ordinarily have the right to free speech, including religious expression, that's not always true if they work at a state or federal institution and might be seen as speaking with the government's voice.
Most recently, in June, the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Texas was entitled to exclude the controversial Confederate battle flag from speciality license plates. People may display the Confederate flag if they want, but the government likewise may choose not to, the court ruled.
"When government speaks, it is not barred by the free speech clause from determining the content of what it says," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court. "Instead, the free speech clause helps produce informed opinions among members of the public, who are then able to influence the choices of a government that, through words and deeds, will reflect its electoral mandate."