Kentucky should protect foster kids’ religious freedom

The Bevin administration is re-embroiling the state in a court fight that was triggered 18 years ago when Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children fired an employee because she posed with her lesbian partner in a photo exhibit at the state fair.

The employee’s discrimination complaint was dismissed early on. But the state, the Baptist-supported agency that was renamed Sunrise Children’s Services and three Kentucky taxpayer plaintiffs have been arguing ever since in federal court about how to safeguard children in taxpayer-supported foster care from religious coercion and proselytizing.

Without admitting or alleging any wrongdoing, the state in 2014 agreed to guidelines which most people will consider sensible and humane.

As summarized by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, the terms agreed to by the state “require providers to inform a child and the child’s parents of a foster home’s religious affiliation, to provide children with opportunities to go to the church of their choice, and to provide non-religious alternatives to religious activities. Providers must also agree not to discriminate against children on the basis of religion, coerce children to engage in religious activity or attempt to convert children to a new religion. Further, when children leave their care, providers must give them an exit survey that asks, among other things, whether the provider tried to convert the child to a new religion.”

The agreement did not preclude adults from talking to children about spiritual concerns or restrict children from praying or participating in religious activities.

Sunrise, which receives two-thirds of its revenue from state contracts and is a key part of caring for Kentucky’s neglected and abused children, has fought the plaintiffs to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has twice declined to hear the case. The state also unsuccessfully asked the Supreme Court to throw out the lawsuit on grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing.

Sunrise is fighting the settlement reached in 2014 with the Beshear administration. And now the Bevin administration is asking U.S. District Judge Charles Simpson in Louisville to throw out the agreement. (The reason the settlement isn’t already final: Sunrise won a partial victory at the appeals level resulting in some revisions sought by the Baptist agency.)

Interestingly, Sunrise insists it has never proselytized young people in its care, despite testimony from some former clients that they were pressured to convert to Christianity. Sunrise argues that the accusation has harmed its reputation. But it has not objected to the proposed guidelines for protecting children from religious coercion.

What both Sunrise and now the Bevin administration most object to is that the lawyers for the plaintiffs — the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State — would have a role in monitoring compliance with the guidelines, under terms of the proposed settlement.

However, the plaintiffs’ lawyers would have only limited power. They could point out to state officials any coercion revealed by client exit interviews conducted by the foster-care agencies. (The client names would be redacted.) If unsatisfied with the state’s response, the plaintiffs could appeal to the judge, who would have the ultimate authority.

Sunrise, and apparently the Bevin administration, fear the settlement would become a weapon for harassing religiously-affiliated agencies, but that fear is purely hypothetical and the legal arguments technical.

The overriding concern should be assuring that the children in state care, already vulnerable and traumatized, are respected and protected from pressure or coercion.

The Supreme Court has long held that because teachers and administrators at public schools have near total authority over their students, indoctrinating them in religion violates constitutional protections against state-imposed religion. That’s why the court has said it’s OK to pray before a city council meeting, where the participants are adults, but unconstitutional before a public school sporting event.

If religiously-affiliated agencies can’t agree to provide that same level of protection to children in their care, they have an obvious recourse: Stop accepting taxpayer funding and become self-supporting.

It’s a shame that resources that could have gone into improving services for Kentucky children will instead go into prolonging this legal battle.