Mar 20, 2013

Kentucky state government has agreed to make broad changes in its child-care system to protect children against religious coercion, indoctrination and discrimination in order to settle a bitterly fought, decade-long federal lawsuit filed by state taxpayers.

In the lawsuit, taxpayers represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington, DC-based international law firm Arnold & Porter LLP charged that state funds were being used to proselytize children and advance religion. The advocacy groups presented extensive evidence that Sunrise Children’s Services, a state contractor affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, coercively imposed Christianity upon children in its care in many ways.

Under the settlement, child-care agencies that contract with the state will be forbidden to discriminate in any manner against any child based on the child’s views about religion or to pressure children to participate in religious worship or instruction. Publicly funded child-care agencies and foster homes across the state also will be barred from placing religious items in children’s rooms without their consent, and religious materials will be given only to children who request such materials.

In addition, prior to placing a child with a religiously affiliated child-care agency or foster home, the state will inform children and parents of the provider’s religious affiliation, and if the child or parent objects, the state will endeavor to provide an alternative placement, except in certain special circumstances.

“We are pleased with this settlement,” said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser. “It will ensure that vulnerable youths in Kentucky’s child-care system are free to follow and practice their own faiths, or no faith at all, and that no religion is forced upon them.”

“This strong agreement promotes the basic constitutional principle that taxpayer funds should never be used to underwrite religious indoctrination,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

As part of the settlement in Pedreira v. Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, the state will be required to extensively monitor state-funded child-care agencies to make sure that they are complying with the terms mandated by the settlement and are not religiously proselytizing or coercing the children in their care. Monitoring documents will be made available to Americans United and the ACLU to ensure compliance with the terms of the agreement.

Such careful monitoring is necessary, attorneys said, because of the history of proselytizing at Sunrise Children’s Services, a ministry originally known as Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children.

In documents filed with the federal courts, Americans United, the ACLU and Arnold & Porter noted numerous examples of Sunrise’s sectarian character. The ministry’s president has touted Sunrise’s success in converting children, and the agency calls itself “Christ centered” and refers to the foster parents it recruits as “in-home missionaries.” Documents obtained through the lawsuit revealed that numerous children – including Catholic, Pentecostal, Jehovah’s Witness and atheist youths – felt pressured into giving up their beliefs.

Interviews with children conducted by the Children’s Review Program, a private contractor hired by Kentucky officials to monitor programs for children, identified numerous instances where young people complained about being forced to attend Baptist services or said they were not permitted to attend services of other faiths.  The state cancelled the interview program in 2008, citing budget concerns, but interviews will resume as a result of the settlement agreement.

Despite a history of religious coercion, Sunrise has benefitted from massive taxpayer support. Since the case began in 2000, the Baptist-affiliated ministry has received substantially more than $100 million in government funds. In its 2011 fiscal year, the state paid $14.8 million of the ministry’s expenses of $24.7 million.

“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, staff attorney with the ACLU of Kentucky.

Attorneys on the Pedreira legal team include Luchenitser, Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan; ACLU attorneys Mach, Sharp, and James Esseks; and attorneys David Bergman, Ian Hoffman, and R. Stanton Jones of the law firm Arnold & Porter LLP.