Fighting ‘Faith-Based’ Bias

Alicia Pedreira And Other Kentucky Activists Are Challenging Publicly Funded Discrimination And Indoctrination By A Baptist Child Care Agency

With a new college degree in hand, Alicia Pedreira had set out to find the perfect job to put her career on the right track. As an optimistic woman fresh out of school, she never thought that the first position she accepted would end up derailing that career and altering her entire life. 

It was 1998, and Pedreira had landed an interview to be a family therapist for the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children (KBHC), a faith-based agency that contracted with the state to provide foster care for troubled children. 

She had been wary of applying to the organization. Being a lesbian and aware of KBHC’s religious nature, she doubted they would like her, and she guessed she might not get along with them, either. 

But after the initial interview, she felt differently.

“I thought I had a pretty good chance,” Pedreira recalls. “I realized that I did like the program they had for the kids.”

So when she was called back for the second interview, she wanted to make sure they knew the whole truth.

“I disclosed to them that I was gay,” she said. “I did not want to have problems with the Baptists. I was honest from the beginning and they needed to be honest as well. I said, ‘Please, don’t hire me if six months from now you are going to fire me.’ But they did, almost six months to the day.”

Pedreira had always been appreciated by her employer for her exemplary performance, and received only positive evaluations throughout her time at the KBHC. But after a picture of Pedreira and her then-partner at an AIDS walk was publicly displayed in a photo contest, KBHC terminated her position because her “admitted homosexual lifestyle is contrary to Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children core values.”

It’s been more than 10 years since Pedreira lost that job, and her career and her life have never been the same.

“Truthfully, I haven’t really gotten back on track,” she said. “Some people are able to recover from this type of thing, but then there are others like me who kind of get lost for a while and don’t know what to do.”

Pedreira’s story paints a clear picture of what can go wrong when religious organizations use public funds to discriminate. KBHC receives most of its funding through state and federal contracts and programs, just like many religious organizations do under the “faith-based” initiative and other so-called “charitable choice” programs. Because of controversial interpretations of federal law and Bush-era executive orders, religious organizations claim they can discriminate based on religious beliefs even while accepting public funding.

In 2008, Barack Obama promised that if elected president, he would put an end to this. In a speech he delivered in Zanesville, Ohio, he told Americans that under his faith-based office, “If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people who you help and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion.”

Yet in February, Obama unveiled his White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, leaving untouched five Bush-era executive orders, including the order that permits religious groups accepting tax funding to engage in discriminatory hiring.

In failing to do what he originally promised, Obama has left the door wide open for stories like Pedreira’s to become commonplace.

Fortunately, Pedreira said she didn’t go through this experience with KBHC to let that happen.

Since KBHC fired her, she has become the human face for more than one civil rights campaign. Her story helped pass a city ordinance to stop discrimination against gay people in Louisville, Ky. Civil rights activists had been fighting for that ordinance for 14 years, and finally, relying in part on Pedreira’s name and story, they succeeded.

And Pedreira has stood up for another cause, this time in the federal courts. In 2000, Americans United, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit against KBHC and the state of Kentucky, with Pedreira as the lead plaintiff. The lawsuit alleges that since KBHC runs mostly with public funds, discrimination against gay and lesbian people violates federal and state civil rights laws that prohibit religious discrimination.

The suit contains another claim brought by Pedreira and several Kentucky citizens who joined as taxpayer plaintiffs, including Americans United Board President and Baptist minister Dr. Paul Simmons. Though KBHC receives public funds and the Constitution prohibits the use of such funds to indoctrinate, a report conducted by a state-employed monitoring group highlighted 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. AU’s lawsuit contends that this clearly violates church-state separation and Simmons believes KBHC’s use of public funds violates core Baptist traditions.

“Coming from a Baptist background,” Simmons said, “we learned the tradition of separation of church and state and I have a strong commitment to that.

“I think this case is a good way to remind Baptists of their heritage by defending a person who was subjected to discrimination based on religious beliefs,” he continued. “While I can understand the arguments of people who use religion to make these decisions, that should not carry that over if they are going to use public funds.

“This is a Baptist institution,” Simmons concluded, “that is almost entirely reliant on state funds for operations. It has become a state organization. Baptists have historically relied on their own funds through volunteer contributions to support missions.”

It’s been nine years since Simmons joined Pedreira as a plaintiff in this case, and after an unfavorable district court ruling, their case has been appealed. Alex Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United, argued Pedreira v. Kentucky Baptist Homes For Children, Inc. before a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio, on March 11.

Looming over this appeal is a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation. In that case, the justices, in a narrow 5-4 decision, said in order for taxpayers to have “standing” (the right to sue) in religion funding cases, there must be a link between the challenged funding and legislative action, and that taxpayers cannot challenge “a purely discretionary Executive Branch expenditure.”

Last March, U.S. District Judge Charles R. Simpson, applied an overly broad interpretation of Hein to this case. He threw out the taxpayer claim because Kentucky executive agencies chose to pay state funds to KBHC. It did not matter that these agencies received those funds pursuant to legislative appropriations and authorizations.

Pedreira’s employment discrimination claim had also already been dismissed by Simpson in 2001. The judge reasoned that civil rights laws only protect against an employer that discriminates based on religious beliefs. Firing Pedreira for being a lesbian was based on KBHC’s disapproval of her behavior, not on her religious belief, Simpson said.

Americans United has appealed both dismissed claims because much is at stake in this case, Luchenitser said. The case’s outcome could dramatically alter the way civil liberties groups can bring lawsuits challenging faith-based groups’ use of public funds.

“If the defendants’ and district court’s view of the law is accepted,” said AU’s Luchenitser, “it will cut right to the heart of church-state separation challenges.

“Taxpayers will only be able to challenge public funding of religious organizations when a legislature directly appropriates a specific sum of money to a particular religious group,” he continued. “The vast majority of public funding of religious groups does not occur through such ‘earmarks,’ but through broader programs authorized by legislative bodies under which executive-branch officials choose to provide some funding to some religious groups.”

This means that funds awarded by federal executive-branch officials through Bush’s and Obama’s “faith-based” initiative would be impossible for taxpayers to challenge. Religious groups receiving taxpayer funds could indoctrinate and discriminate without any fear of being sued.

Americans United and the ACLU have asked the 6th Circuit to reinstate the case so that Pedreira and other taxpayer plaintiffs can pursue their challenge of KBHC’s practices, and pave the way for similar church-state challenges in the future.

But one KBHC attorney, Steven Aden, said that’s not what will happen. He claims faith-based groups that receive federal funding deserve the right to discriminate in hiring based on religious beliefs. 

“What the ACLU and its allies would like to see happen to faith-based organizations,” Aden told NPR, “is tantamount to forcing an environmental group to hire representatives of a logging company or to force a vegetarian group to hire meat eaters. It’s the same principle.”

That’s why recipients of funds from the “faith-based” initiative lobbied Obama not to repeal former President George W. Bush’s executive orders allowing for discrimination.

“We obviously listened to the Zanesville, Ohio, speech with some concern,” Rich Stearns, president of World Vision USA, told NPR. World Vision received a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Justice in 2007, even though the group only hires Christians who meet its theological test.

“After that speech,” Stearns continued, “a number of us began to engage with Obama’s campaign about that issue, and we found a very receptive audience.”

But Barry W. Lynn, AU’s executive director, said if Obama does listen to Stearns and his allies, he would not only be backing away from his July promise, but would be allowing for clear constitutional violations.

“Churches and other religious groups have every right to provide social services,” Lynn said. “But they may not receive tax funding if they proselytize or discriminate on religious grounds. It’s fundamentally unfair.”

Even today, KBHC (which has since changed its name to Sunrise Children’s Services) is funded primarily by Kentucky and federal taxpayer dollars, receiving more than $100 million in government funds since this case began in 2000.

Yet their policies of indoctrinating children in Baptist beliefs and discriminating against gays on religious grounds remain a concern. In a report to the Kentucky Baptist Convention, KBHC’s President William K. Smithwick touted the organization’s success in converting children to Christianity, announcing that “[t]he angels rejoiced last year as 244 of our children made decisions about their relationships with Jesus Christ.”

KBHC’s publication, The Baptist Children’s Messenger, reported its “goal is to keep Baptist Homes for Children a Christ-centered agency, not just in name, but in practice.”

The institution pressures its young residents to attend Baptist church services, participate in on-campus Bible studies and attend religious extracurricular activities such as concerts and camps. KBHC displays religious iconography in its facilities, leads residents in prayer before meals and provides residents with Bibles and other Christian literature.

In interviews conducted with children leaving KBHC, one child stated that she was not allowed to practice her own religion or attend a church of her own belief because she had to go to a Baptist or Christian church. She said they tried to “force [her] to become Christian.”

Another child said she did not have the choice whether to attend religious services, stating, “If you did not go, you got into trouble.”

In connection with Pedreira’s termination, KBHC also formally adopted a policy that “homosexuality is a lifestyle that would prohibit employment.”

Smithwick explained, “We do not believe that the homosexual lifestyle is the one God intends for the human race and do not want to suggest the same to our children…. Having staff whose lifestyles demonstrate the opposite of the Judeo-Christian values we build our mission upon working with our kids is a contradiction of who we are.”

Pedreira said she wished they would have been honest about that policy 11 years ago. After all, she never intended to be so involved in a civil rights battle. She liked to do her part for the community – participating in the AIDS walk in Louisville and volunteering now and then – but she never saw herself as a political activist.

Pedreira just wanted to be a counselor for kids. That’s why she took the job at KBHC. She was earning hours of experience toward the required 2,000 hours to become a board-certified therapist. But the 600 hours she had accumulated for her time at KBHC ended up expiring before she could find another job as a therapist. As of today, she has been unable to earn those hours and become certified.

“The public-ness of it all really affected me,” she said. “People would ask me how I was doing a year later, and I would say ‘Oh, I’m fine,’ but it really messed with my head.”

Pedreira tried to find other positions and explore other careers, but in the end, she has returned to working with children. She now serves as an autism intervention specialist.

Pedreira thinks she would have been higher on the career ladder if she hadn’t run into KBHC’s discriminatory policies.

“By now,” she said, “I wanted to be somewhere else – in administration, head of a department – but that didn’t happen.”

Pedreira, however, does realize she is helping in another way, even though it’s not the way she originally had planned.

“Win or lose, this is historic,” she said. “This has my name on it and this will probably affect hundreds and thousands of people.”