The Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice on Friday said it's standing by a year-old policy that prohibits anti-gay comments to youths held at the state's juvenile detention centers.
The Liberty Counsel, a private religious group, threatened to sue the agency in a June 23 letter that said the policy violates the free speech of volunteers who want to counsel young inmates about homosexuality. The letter gave state officials until Friday to repeal the policy and reinstate David Wells, a Baptist minister asked to leave the Warren Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Bowling Green after he would not agree to restrict what he told inmates about their sexual orientation.
The Department of Juvenile Justice hopes to "foster an open and inclusive culture," Commissioner Bob Hayter wrote in a letter on Friday to Richard Mast Jr., an attorney for the Liberty Counsel in Lynchburg, Va.
"The department's regulation is neutral as to religion and requires respectful language toward youth by all staff, contractors and volunteers," Hayter wrote. "The regulation advances a compelling government interest in developing a trusting, therapeutic relationship with the children in DJJ custody, which requires an environment of unconditional acceptance."
The state's response "is absolutely inadequate," said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel. The group will decide in coming days whether to file a lawsuit, Staver said.
"They're addressing an issue that doesn't exist. They're saying there should be no discrimination or bias or abuse shown toward these kids, but nobody has ever accused David Wells of anything like that," Staver said.
"The policy has got such broad language in it that it literally prevents him from answering questions from children seeking guidance," he said. "One of the kids tells David he sexually molested his sister and wants to change. Another kid tells David that he was sexually molested by a man when he was younger and he wants to change. What is he supposed to do, not offer them a message of hope?"
Under the policy, enacted in April 2014, juvenile detention center staff and volunteers cannot tell inmates "that they are abnormal, deviant, sinful or that they should change their sexual orientation or gender identity." It requires "fair and equal treatment without bias" for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and intersex juveniles."
State Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, repeatedly has sponsored bills in the General Assembly that would expand the state's civil-rights laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity. On Friday, Neal said the Department of Juvenile Justice is doing the right thing.
"It goes without saying that I'm opposed to discrimination in any case where a group is being singled out for hurtful or oppressive treatment," Neal said. "So I fully support the policy enacted here by DJJ. I'm just disappointed that the agendas by some are so narrow that they disregard the rights of others. Let them sue and let the courts settle it."