Child care agencies contracting with the state of Kentucky are barred from discriminating against children on the basis of religion under a settlement announced Wednesday by state officials and multiple groups.
The agreement also requires the agencies to consider an alternative placement if a child or guardian objects to a provider's religious affiliation. The agreement also bans agencies from pressuring a child to participate in worship services or religious instruction.
The settlement between Kentucky and a group of citizens represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State closes a long-running legal battle over public funding of a faith-based organization in Kentucky. If U.S. District Judge Charles R. Simpson III approves the agreement, there will be 90 days for Kentucky officials to modify regulations and for child-placing agencies to comply.
Kentucky must monitor state-funded child care agencies to ensure they're not proselytizing or coercing children in their care. Monitoring documents will be made available to Americans United and the ACLU. Children will be interviewed as part of the monitoring program — a reinstatement of a practice ended in 2008.
"Young people in need shouldn't have to feel pressured to accept a certain set of beliefs in exchange for help, especially when state funds are involved," said Bill Sharp, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Kentucky, which helped bring the case.
Americans United Associate Director Alex J. Luchenitser said the settlement ensures that children in Kentucky's child care system are free to practice their faith and that "no religion is forced upon them."
"It will protect the rights of children all across Kentucky," Luchenitser said.
The suit was filed in 2000 by three taxpayers and Alicia Pedreira, a lesbian who claimed religious discrimination in her firing from her job with Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, now known as Sunrise Children's Services. An appeals court in 2009 dismissed Pedreira's claim against Sunrise, but allowed the challenge to public funding of faith-based institutions to proceed.
Sunrise Children's Services, affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, cares for abused and neglected children through its residential centers and foster care placement. The company handled a large share of Kentucky's placements. In its annual report, Sunrise said it took care of nearly 2,000 children and provided 147,762 days of care in 2011. In the 2011 fiscal year, Kentucky paid $14.8 million to Mount Washington-based Sunrise for child care.
The lawsuit focused on accusations that Sunrise employees were pushing the Baptist faith on children who were Catholics, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses or atheists.
One child interviewed during the litigation said "I just felt I was being pressured into giving up my religion."
Luchenitser was unsure how many companies and residential placement homes would be covered by the settlement.
"Sunrise is the largest private child care provider in Kentucky," Luchenitser said. "The fact that there was a problem at Sunrise meant there was a serious problem across the whole state."