The LGBT agenda has jeopardized Kentucky’s long-running relationship with a foster care and adoption agency affiliated with the Baptist church that serves some of the state’s most vulnerable children.
The standoff revolves around a clause in a new contract with the state that prohibits agencies from opting not to work with same-sex couples and that Sunrise Children’s Services is refusing to sign.
It’s another round in a broader fight in states and the courts over religious liberty and LGBT issues, including whether businesses can refuse to provide services for same-sex weddings.
An upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Pennsylvania case could be decisive in the Kentucky clash; it’s reviewing the refusal of Philadelphia Catholic Social Services to place foster children with same-sex couples.
In the Kentucky contract, Sunrise officials are concerned the disputed clause would compel them to violate their religious beliefs by sponsoring same-sex couples as foster or adoptive parents.
Child welfare advocates worry that losing Sunrise would further strain a state system struggling to keep up with demand. Kentucky consistently has some of the nation’s worst child abuse rates.
“You cannot pivot from losing such a large provider of child welfare services … and not anticipate some degree of disruption,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.
The state set a June 30 deadline for Sunrise to sign. If it refuses, the state has threatened to stop working with the agency.
Formerly called Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, Sunrise’s history dates to caring for Civil War orphans. It has contracted with the state for 50-plus years, becoming one of Kentucky’s largest service providers for abused or neglected children.
LGBT advocates say state-funded agencies shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples.
“If Sunrise doesn’t want to abide by that, that’s fine. They shouldn’t have access to state money, state contracts or children in the state’s care,” said Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville-based LGBT advocacy group.
A long-running federal lawsuit has alleged that Sunrise imposes religious beliefs on children. Sunrise’s attorney, John Sheller, calls it an “outrageous accusation.”
Sunrise’s focus is on finding good homes for children and treating mental health, substance abuse or other problems they are battling, he said.
When same-sex couples contact Sunrise about becoming foster parents, the agency offers to help steer them to other child services agencies that are a “better fit,” Sheller said. He was aware of a handful of such instances.
“There is clearly a tension between LGBT issues and traditional Christian values,” Sheller said. “And it does not have to be winner-take-all. There is room for both principles to survive and thrive in our pluralistic society, and we can accommodate both.”
Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services says it hopes for a “positive resolution.” Sunrise president Dale Suttles says he wants the relationship with the state to continue.
“Sunrise would act on a contract today that allows them to care for Kentucky’s needy and abused children while protecting their deeply held religious beliefs,” said Todd Gray, executive director and treasurer of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
Like many other states, Kentucky contracts with private agencies like Sunrise for some of its child welfare services. Overall, about 5,000 of the 9,100 children in Kentucky’s care are in foster homes or other placements managed by the state. About 4,000 receive care through private agencies.
Sunrise, which only operates in Kentucky, says it currently cares for nearly 800 children. The state reimburses Sunrise for about 65 percent of its costs, with private donations covering the rest.
The state says it’s bound by an Obama-era federal rule to include the contract clause Sunrise opposes. The rule included sexual orientation under anti-discrimination provisions.
“It would be a mistake not to place kids with wonderful couples that want to be foster parents that are gay,” Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said this week. “People make wonderful foster parents in all types of couples, and we shouldn’t be eliminating or discriminating against any of them.”
Sunrise argues the federal rule was reversed under former President Donald Trump. Sheller said the agency is “open to any reasonable process” as long as it’s “not compelled by that language to violate its faith principles.”
“The state’s position is that it’s going to try to compel Sunrise to sign the same form contract that it uses with secular providers,” Sheller said. “And Sunrise cannot and will not sign that form contract by July 1st or any other date.”
Sunrise is affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, consisting of nearly 2,400 churches with a total membership of about 600,000 people. The church holds to the traditional Christian teaching that homosexuality is a sin.
If Sunrise loses its state contract, it would have to find ways to raise new capital to continue its services, according to Suttles, the agency’s president.
“We do know that there are many children in need of help that are not in state custody,” he added.
The dispute has had political fallout.
Kentucky House Republicans and state GOP officials have urged Beshear’s administration to maintain ties with Sunrise. Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron said the administration was forcing Sunrise to “choose between continuing to serve Kentucky children or abandon its religious beliefs.”
If the state cuts ties with Sunrise, it must be prepared to fill the gaps if it loses some foster parents in the agency’s network, said Brooks of Kentucky Youth Advocates. His biggest concern is caring for the children who require the “intense and specialized treatment” that Sunrise now provides.
Brooks said he’s confident the state can move children to other agencies but added that “the challenge cannot and should not be minimized.”
The Western Journal has reviewed this Associated Press story and may have altered it prior to publication to ensure that it meets our editorial standards.
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