LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A Baptist agency that is Kentucky's largest private provider of services for abused children is considering opening its doors to gay employees, which would put it at odds with the conservative churches that lend financial support.
Sunrise Children's Services President Bill Smithwick said the proposal is tied to the agency's securing of state and federal funding. Sunrise receives about $1 million annually from Baptist churches, but about 85 percent of its $27 million budget comes from state and federal money.
"Sunrise cannot sustain itself without the partnership of state and federal and fundraising dollars," Smithwick said.
Last year, the agency settled a decade-long lawsuit brought by a former lesbian employee who claimed she was fired due to religious discrimination.
Kentucky Baptist Convention executive director Paul Chitwood said if Sunrise does begin hiring gay people, the convention's churches could move to withdraw their funding and sever ties with the agency.
"For them to surrender such a core distinction of the Christian faith would be for them, in essence, to just become another secular agency that contracts with the state for child care," Chitwood said. "If Sunrise wants to become that, that's the choice of the board, but that's not what Kentucky Baptists have invested in since the beginning of Sunrise."
The Kentucky Baptist Convention approves Sunrise board members and it has a covenant agreement that stipulates Sunrise "shall maintain its distinctive Baptist character."
Smithwick said it is not worth losing major funding support because of the church's opposition to homosexuality.
"We cannot leave behind the children we have been called to serve or forsake them even if it means the instrument through which they receive spiritual, emotional, and physical sustenance does not rise to the level of perfection the convention believes we should attain," he wrote in a statement.
The settlement Sunrise reached over the lawsuit filed in 2000 bars child care agencies that contract with the state from discriminating against children on the basis of religion. The suit was brought by three taxpayers and former employee Alicia Pedreira, who claimed she was fired for religious reasons. An appeals court in 2009 dismissed Pedreira's claim, but allowed the lawsuit's challenge to public funding of faith-based institutions to proceed.
The lawsuit accused Sunrise employees of pushing the Baptist faith on children who were Catholics, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses or atheists.
Chitwood said he was disappointed that Sunrise was considering the change after the protracted battle over Pedreira's lawsuit.
"I was shocked, dismayed and have been struggling to understand why Smithwick, after arguing for more than a decade that biblical family values need to be modeled in front of children, suddenly without any demand from the state, is surrendering that conviction,"Chitwood said.
Chitwood said it's not a given that Sunrise's board would move to allow the agency to hire gay people and he said he has spoken to some members who would oppose the move.
The board meets on Nov. 8, and the Kentucky Baptist Convention's annual meeting is four days later in Paducah.
Sunrise, formerly known as Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, operates eight residential centers, three psychiatric residential facilities and serves about 2,000 children annually. It reported about $24 million in expenses, according to its 2012 annual report.
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