Civil rights advocates ask court to sever Kentucky’s ties to Baptist health center

Wednesday, April 19, 2000

Alicia Pedreira...
Alicia Pedreira

A couple of national civil rights groups are challenging the use of Kentucky tax dollars by a religious-based children’s health center that cites moral reasons for firing gays.

The national and Kentucky headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued Kentucky in federal court on April 17 alleging the state is violating the First Amendment by financing a religious organization that discriminates on the basis of religion and uses state dollars to advance fundamentalism.

Joining the civil rights groups’ lawsuit is a lesbian who was fired from Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children because of its policy barring employment of gays.

The Kentucky Baptist Homes is licensed by and receives funding through the state’s Cabinet for Families and Children. Baptist Homes’ mission includes a Christian ministry that, “through God’s direction and leadership, reaches out to children and families with Christ’s love and compassion.” The organization, moreover, requires its employees to “exhibit values in their professional conduct and personal lifestyles that are consistent with the Christian mission and purpose of the institution.”

The Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children “uses Commonwealth funds to hire employees who are required to accept and abide by the institution’s religious beliefs, and to pay for services that seek to teach youth the institution’s version of Christian values,” states the 19-page complaint filed in a federal district court in Louisville.

Alicia Pedreira was hired by Baptist Homes in March 1998 as a family specialist supervising adolescents and teaching them “living skills.” In August, co-workers inadvertently discovered Pedreira’s sexual orientation and reported it to Jack Cox, the Baptist Homes program director. In September, Cox asked Pedreira to resign, telling her the group believes the Bible condemns lesbians and gays as immoral. Pedreira’s six-month evaluation had lauded her “exceptional skills” and concluded she was “a valuable part” of the Baptist Homes staff.

In October, Bill Smithwick, executive director of Baptist Homes, told Pedreira she was being fired because she is gay. She was then handed a termination statement that declares: “Alicia Pedreira is being terminated on October 13, 1998, from Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children because her admitted homosexual lifestyle is contrary to Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children core values.”

Baptist Homes issued a press statement attempting to justify firing Pedreira: “It is important that we stay true to our Christian values. Homosexuality is a lifestyle that would prohibit employment.” Baptist Homes also re-issued its written policy barring gays from employment, with an addendum noting that while its board of directors “does not encourage or intend for staff to seek out people within the organization who may live an alternate lifestyle, we will, however, act according to Board policy if a situation is brought to our attention.”

Baptist Homes, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, has received state funding since the late 1970s.

The complaint asks the federal court to declare Kentucky’s funding of Baptist Homes a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, to stop further state funding of the group and to force it to repay state funds.

“The Commonwealth of Kentucky’s practice of providing government funds to finance KBHC staff positions that are filled in accordance with religious tenets constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause,” the complaint states. “The Commonwealth of Kentucky’s practice of providing government funds to finance KBHC services that seek to instill Christian values and teachings to the youth in its care constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause.”

Michael Jennings, communications director for the state’s Cabinet for Families and Children, said the agency’s contract with Baptist Homes expires on June 30 and that it was possible the state would not renew it. Jennings said the ACLU had given his agency ample time to try to persuade Baptist Homes to change its hiring practices.

“We have been uncomfortable, to say the least, with the Kentucky Baptist Homes’ employment policy and have tried repeatedly to persuade Baptist Homes to change their policy because we feel that this type of discrimination is at odds with good social work and we don’t like it,” Jennings said.

Jennings added that if the state did sever its ties with Baptist Homes, he hoped his agency would be dropped from the lawsuit. State officials, including Gov. Paul E. Patton’s office, are “urgently” examining the situation, Jennings said, and would decide before June 30 whether to continue funding Baptist Homes.

Smithwick, Baptist Homes’ executive director, said the group would not alter its hiring policy and that the ACLU’s lawsuit “misses the point.”

“Our policy on employing homosexuals is about the well-being of children, not the fostering of religion,” Smithwick said. “The average homosexual male lives to be only 39 years old and we don’t think we should be doing anything to promote or encourage sexually confused children to engage in a lifestyle that could potentially take 25 to 30 years off their life.”

Smithwick added that Baptist Homes “never discriminates against children with sexual preference differences.”

Rob Boston, assistant communications director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, urged Kentucky officials to break their ties with the organization.

“If Baptist Homes wish to maintain a bigoted and discriminatory policy, they need to swear off government money,” Boston said. “Baptist Homes should return the government funds and then they can fire people for any reason they want, including fornication and dancing on Saturday nights.”