Kentucky faith-based agency under fire for religious coercion

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Saturday, May 5, 2007

A lawsuit filed by a former employee of Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children (now Sunrise Children's Services) and four other tax-payers, has shed light on the possibility of religious coercion by the organization. The lawsuit challenges the faith-based agency's eligibility for state funds.

Specifically, interviews of children conducted by the state of Kentucky have revealed complaints from some of the children. Mainly, children who said they were Catholic, Pentecostal, Jehovah's Witnesses or atheist voiced complaints in the interviews.

"They tried to more [or] less force me to become a Christian," said one child in an exit interview. "I just felt I was being pressured into giving up my religion."

Another child reported s/he was "not allowed to choose when or when not to attend a religious service," per the interview, and was told "'to do' some type of Bible study during that time or get consequences."

Both the Commonwealth of Kentucky and Sunrise say there is a strict policy against proselytizing in the program and that it does not prevent children from practising their individual faiths.

They also stress that these complaints number merely a "handful" among the approximately 1,500 children that are served by the faith-based agency.

"If a child says, 'I don't want to go to the Baptist church,' then the child does not go," Jonathan Goldberg, the state's attorney, said. Some children might have mistankenly believed they were forced to go, he added.

The plaintiffs are seeking to have the interviews unsealed, at least in the cases where the child is now 18 years of age or older. The state and Sunrise argue they need to be kept confidential.

The lawsuit originated with Alicia Pedreira, who was fired in 2000. She alleges her firing was direct result of Sunrise (then Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children) finding out she is a lesbian.

Sunrise Children's Services provides residential programs and foster care homes for children that have suffered abuse or neglect. Since 2001, Kentucky has paid Sunrise US$61 million to provide the services for children who would otherwise be in direct state custody.

In 2001, the state did find cause for action against one of Sunrise's homes to fix "a coercive religious environment" where staff members confirmed that church attendance was required.

With accusations of undue pressure by a Christian agency funded by the state, the Sunrise case bears some similitude to the lawsuit against Iowa for paying Chuck Colson's evangelical agency to run part of its prison.

Last June, U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt strongly reprimanded and ruled against Iowa's use of a Christian social service agency to administer its prison. Judge Pratt stated: "For all practical purposes, the state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of its penal institutions... There are no adequate safeguards present, nor could there be, to ensure that state funds are not being directly spent to indoctrinate Iowa inmates."

The Iowa ruling is pending appeal.

Critics point to both of these cases as failures of George W. Bush's faith-based services initiative. The program is often seen as conflicting with the tradition of separation of church and state in the United States.

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