The issue of giving taxpayer funds to religious organizations providing government services recently resurfaced in the presidential campaign. Since the ACLU is a nonpartisan organization that doesn’t take sides in elections, you’ll have to look elsewhere to learn how the candidates compare on the issue. But keep reading if you want to hear about the devastating effects that can result when adequate safeguards to prevent the use of this funding for religious purposes are not put in place.
Last week the LGBT Project and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a brief before a federal appeals court on behalf Alicia Pedreira, who was fired from her job at a publicly-funded Baptist group home for wards of the State of Kentucky because she didn’t observe the organization’s belief that being a lesbian is sinful.
In 1998, Pedreira was recruited to work as a family specialist for a Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children (since renamed Sunrise Children’s Services) unit for behavior-disordered adolescent boys in the state's foster care and juvenile justice systems. She was a well-respected counselor and received positive feedback for her work. Things turned sour when employees of the Baptist organization saw a photograph of Pedreira and her partner on display at the state fair. Pedreira didn’t even know the photo was being displayed, but that didn’t stop the organization from firing her on October 23, 1998. The same day, the organization passed a written policy that homosexuality would prohibit employment at the organization because it is inconsistent with its Christian values.
The ACLU and Americans United filed a lawsuit on behalf of Pedreira on April 17, 2000, charging that it was unlawful for the publicly-funded Baptist organization to fire Pedreira because she did not observe her employer’s religious beliefs about sexual orientation. The complaint also charges that it was unconstitutional for the state to spend taxpayer dollars to fund a religious organization that attempts to indoctrinate children placed under state care. After years of litigation, the district court dismissed the case on March 31, 2008. The legal groups appealed the decision to the Federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and are urging the court to allow the case to proceed.
The lower court dismissed Pedreira’s discrimination claims, finding that Pedreira didn’t suffer religious discrimination because Baptist Homes did not require her to believe that being a lesbian is sinful, but merely required that she observe its religious belief that being a lesbian is sinful. The legal groups argue that this interpretation of the law would mean employers are free to discriminate against all employees whose lives fail to conform to the religious beliefs of the employer, so long as the employer doesn’t require its employees to actually share its religious beliefs. Workers could be fired for failing to conform to their employer's religious beliefs concerning social dancing, eating meat, receiving blood transfusions, marrying someone of another faith, or serving in the military.
The appeal raises another very important issue: whether taxpayers have standing to bring legal challenges when the government violates constitutional guarantees against government funding of religion. The lower court ruled that taxpayers are barred from bringing legal challenges after the 2007 Supreme Court decision in Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation. But as our brief points out, that case clearly stated that it applied only to discretionary executive branch expenditures, not funds authorized by a legislature.
It’s pretty scary to think about the ramifications of the lower court’s decision being allowed to stand. Government would be free to farm out its work to a religious group, which would be free to fire or refuse a job to anyone whose beliefs don’t conform to its own. And there would be little concerned taxpayers could do about it. Think about that the next time you hit the dance floor.
It ’s been nearly a decade since Alicia Pedreira was fired, yet she still hasn’t had her day in court. Let’s hope the wait is worth it.