A cultural clash between religious beliefs and gay rights has jeopardized Kentucky’s long-standing relationship with a Baptist Church-affiliated foster and adoption agency that serves some of the state’s most vulnerable children .
The deadlock revolves around a clause in a new contract with the state that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and which Sunrise Children’s Services refuses to sign.
It’s another turn in a larger struggle in states and courts over religious freedom and LGBTQ rights, including whether companies can refuse to provide services for same-sex marriages. An upcoming US Supreme Court ruling in a Pennsylvania case could be decisive in Kentucky shock; it examines the refusal of Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia to work with same-sex couples as adoptive parents.
In the Kentucky contract, Sunrise officials fear the disputed clause may force them to violate deeply held religious principles by sponsoring same-sex couples as adoptive or adoptive parents. Supporters of the provision see it as an essential safeguard against discrimination.
Child welfare advocates fear the loss of Sunrise – which also offers residential treatment programs – would strain a state system struggling to keep up with demand. Kentucky consistently has some of the worst child abuse rates in the country.
“You can’t avoid losing such a great child protection service provider … and not anticipate some degree of disruption,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.
The state has set June 30 as the deadline for signing Sunrise. If he refuses, the state has threatened to stop placing children at the agency. Formerly known as Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, Sunrise’s history dates back to the care of Civil War orphans. It contracted with the state for over 50 years, becoming one of Kentucky’s largest service providers for abused or neglected children.
Sunrise supporters say the agency is the target of a political correctness campaign. Critics say allowing exceptions to the inclusive LGBTQ clause would punish discrimination.
“If Sunrise doesn’t want to respect this, that’s fine. They shouldn’t have access to state money, state contracts or children in state care, ”said Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, an advocacy group. Louisville-based gay rights.
Hartman said he feared LGBTQ children in Sunrise care would be “locked in”, hiding their sexual orientation for fear of “indoctrination and proselytism.”
A long-standing federal lawsuit alleged Sunrise imposed religious indoctrination on children. Sunrise attorney John Sheller calls this a “scandalous charge”.
Sheller said Sunrise “willingly and willingly accepts” LGBTQ youth and does not place children in conversion therapy, which attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Sunrise’s goal is to find good homes for children and to deal with mental health, addiction or other issues they face, he says.
When same-sex couples contact Sunrise to become foster parents, the agency offers to help refer them to other childcare agencies that are “better suited,” Sheller said. He was aware of a handful of such cases.
“There is clearly a tension between LGBT issues and traditional Christian values,” Sheller said. “And it doesn’t have to be a winner. There is room for both principles to survive and thrive in our pluralistic society, and we can accommodate both. “
The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services says it hopes for a “positive resolution.” Sunrise President Dale Suttles wants the relationship to continue.
“Sunrise would act on a contract today that allows them to care for needy and abused Kentucky children while protecting their deeply held religious beliefs,” said Todd Gray, executive director-treasurer of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
Like many other states, Kentucky contracts with private agencies like Sunrise for some of its child welfare services. Overall, about 5,000 of the 9,100 children in Kentucky care are in foster homes or other state-run placements. About 4,000 people receive care through private agencies.
Sunrise, which only operates in Kentucky, says it currently cares for nearly 800 children. The state reimburses Sunrise for around 65% of its costs, with private donations covering the rest.
The state insists it is bound by an Obama-era federal rule to include the contractual clause that Sunrise opposes. The rule included sexual orientation as a protected class under anti-discrimination provisions.
“It would be a mistake not to place the children in wonderful couples who want to be gay foster parents,” Democratic Governor Andy Beshear said this week. “People make wonderful foster parents in all types of couples, and we should not eliminate or discriminate against any of them.”
Sunrise argues that the federal rule was struck down under former President Donald Trump, giving the state leeway to exclude the clause. Sheller said the agency is “open to any reasonable process” as long as it “is not obligated by this language to violate its principles of faith.”
“The state’s position is that it will try to force Sunrise to sign the same model contract it uses with secular suppliers,” Sheller said. “And Sunrise cannot and will not sign this contract until July 1 or any other date.”
Sunrise is affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, made up of nearly 2,400 churches with a total membership of approximately 600,000. Faith considers homosexuality to be a sin.
If Sunrise loses its state contract, it will have to change models and raise new capital to continue its services, said Suttles, the agency’s chairman.
“We know that many children need help who are not in state custody,” he added.
The dispute had political fallout. Kentucky House Republicans and GOP officials have urged the Beshear administration to maintain ties with Sunrise. Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron said the administration was forcing Sunrise to “choose between continuing to serve the children of Kentucky or giving up her religious beliefs.”
Meanwhile, other contracting agencies with the state welcome LGBTQ people as foster or adoptive parents.
“Gay and lesbian families want to grow their families, just like heterosexual families,” said Grace Akers, CEO of St. Joseph Children’s Home in Louisville.
She applauded the Beshear administration for taking a stand that she believes will benefit children.
“There are kids in Kentucky who don’t just get over their trauma, but they work through who they are as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender,” Akers said. “And for us to celebrate these kids, I just think that’s critical.”
If it cuts ties with Sunrise, the state must be prepared to fill in the gaps if it loses foster parents in the agency’s network, said Brooks of Kentucky Youth Advocates. Her biggest concern is to ensure a smooth transition for children who need the “intense and specialized treatment” that Sunrise now offers.
Brooks said he was confident the state could transfer children to other agencies, but added that “the challenge cannot and should not be minimized.”