Lesbian Appeals Firing From Publicly-Funded Baptist Group Home In Kentucky

July 17, 2008 12:00 am

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The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a brief today in a federal appeals court urging the court to allow a discrimination lawsuit to go forward on behalf of a lesbian who was fired from her job at a publicly-funded Baptist group home in Kentucky. The home for vulnerable children required the woman to observe its religious belief that being a lesbian is sinful. The brief also charges that taxpayers should be able to challenge the state of Kentucky’s decision to give public funds to a home that imposes its religious beliefs upon the children in its care.

“I put my heart and soul into helping the children who were under the care of Baptist Homes and was making a difference in their lives,” said Alicia Pedreira. “It was unfair to be fired for being a lesbian. It’s not right that an organization that is funded by state and federal dollars to do work for the state can get away with this.”

The ACLU and Americans United filed the lawsuit on April 17, 2000, on behalf of Pedreira charging that it was unlawful for the publicly-funded Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children (since renamed Sunrise Children’s Services) 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 with its religious beliefs. After years of litigation, the district court dismissed the case on March 31, 2008. The legal groups appealed that decision to the Federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and are urging the court to allow the case to proceed.

“This case illustrates the all-too-real dangers of the government funding religious organizations without adequate safeguards,” said Ken Choe, a Senior Staff Lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project. “The Constitution’s promise of religious freedom guarantees that the government won’t preference one form of religion over another. Yet that’s exactly what happened to Alicia Pedreira, who was fired because she didn’t conform to the religious beliefs of her government-funded employer.”

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. In the brief filed today, the legal groups note that this interpretation of the law would mean employers are free to discriminate against all employees who fail to conform all aspects of their lives to the religious beliefs of the employer. Workers could be fired for dancing, eating meat, receiving blood transfusions, marrying someone of another faith and for serving in the military.

The brief also charges that the lower court misinterpreted a recent Supreme Court decision by ruling that Pedreira and other taxpayers are barred from bringing a challenge against the state for awarding state funds to Baptist Homes with state funds in violation of constitutional guarantees against government funding of religion.

“Kentucky Baptist Homes is on a mission to evangelize on the taxpayers’ dime,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United. “The Constitution simply does not allow this. Faith-based charities that want to indoctrinate youths should not get public funds.”

The brief argues that the taxpayer plaintiffs meet all the long-held qualifications for challenging the state’s decision to give state funds to a religious-based organization that has frequently touted its success in converting wards of the state to Christianity. The brief notes that the 2007 Supreme Court decision, Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation, that the lower court relies upon to justify dismissing the claims clearly stated that it applied only to discretionary Executive Branch expenditures, not funds authorized by a legislature.

“The trial judge was way off base in dismissing this case on legal technicalities,” added Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser. “If this wrong-headed ruling is allowed to stand, it will eviscerate the rights of taxpayers to challenge public funding of religion.”

The brief cites a report by the Children’s Review Program, a private contractor hired by Kentucky officials to monitor programs for children. The report noted 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 brief says, “Baptist Homes uses its public funding to indoctrinate youths – who are wards of the state – in its religious views, coerce them to take part in religious activity, and convert them to its version of Christianity, and does so in part by requiring its employees to reflect its religious beliefs in their behavior.”

In addition to Choe and Luchenitser, the legal team representing Pedriera includes Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan; ACLU attorneys James Esseks, David Friedman, Daniel Mach and William Sharp; ACLU cooperating attorney Vicki Buba of the Oldfather Law Firm in Louisville, KY, attorneys David Bergman, Joshua Wilson, Elizabeth Leise, Alicia Truman, Lea Johnston, and Alessandro Maggi of the international law firm Arnold & Porter LLP; and Washington, D.C. attorney Murray Garnick.

A copy of the brief is available at: www.aclu.org/lgbt/discrim/36038lgl20080717.html

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