Trouble At The Old Kentucky Home

When A State-funded Baptist Child Care Agency Fired A Worker On Religious Grounds, It Sparked...

When Alicia Pedreira participated in an AIDS walk in Louisville, Ky., in 1997, losing her job was the farthest thing from her mind.

During the event, an amateur photographer took Pedreira's picture. The photo was later entered in a contest at the Kentucky State Fair, without her knowledge or permission. Though it was nearly impossible to predict at the time, this single picture led not only to Pedreira losing her job, but also to a ground-breaking court battle that will test the boundaries of tax aid to church-run social services.

In March 1998, Pedreira was hired to work at the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children (KBHC), an institution that describes itself as the "largest private provider of child welfare in Kentucky." Last year, the facility cared for over 3,800 children and teens, most of whom were placed in the KBHC's care by the state.

There is little question about the religious nature of the Baptist home. In a February 1998 press release, KBHC President William Smithwick said, "Our mission is to provide care and hope for hurting families through Christ-centered ministries. I want this mission to permeate our agency like the very blood through our bodies. I want to provide Christian support to every child, staff member, and foster parent."

In fact, children are heavily exposed to religion as part of their care. In January 1999, Smithwick said, "We are able to share the Bible and Christian literature with the children, and involve them in Christian activities. We had 171 professions of faith last year."

While working with children as a family specialist, Pedreira was responsible for counseling and teaching "living skills" to troubled youths, and by all accounts, her job performance was excellent. After working at the home for six months, her evaluation recognized Pedreira's "exceptional skills" and noted that she was a "valuable part" of KBHC's staff. Her supervisor described her as a "wonderful person to supervise," who was "very honest and hard working" and of the "highest moral and ethical character."

During her tenure at the facility, one family in particular singled out Pedreira for praise, noting that she was the first counselor to successfully make a positive difference in their son's life.

However, enthusiasm for Pedreira's professional life quickly turned into hostility for her personal life.

The photo of Pedreira from the AIDS event featured her walking with her partner and wearing a t-shirt identifying her as a lesbian. Co-workers at the KBHC happened to see the photo at the state fair and reported their discovery to Jack Cox, Pedreira's supervisor and the agency's program director.

On Oct. 23, 1998, after refusing to resign or accept a demotion, Pedreira was fired by the KBHC on the grounds that her sexual orientation was in conflict with the religious identity of the facility. According to her termination statement, Pedreira was fired because her "admitted homosexual lifestyle is contrary to the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children core values."

"I was shocked even though I knew it was going to happen," Pedreira told Church & State. Describing the whole situation as "topsy turvy," she added that she became frustrated because, "everything seemed to be happening outside of my world."

The day Pedreira was fired, the home also announced its clarified employment policy, explaining that "homosexuality is a lifestyle that would prohibit employment" at the agency.

As the KBHC's Smithwick explained in an interview with the Associated Press, "We place a lot of emphasis on role models, and for us to have a staff person who is openly homosexual in some way could encourage (youngsters) to be sexually confused and to enter the homosexual lifestyle."

Both Pedreira and her former supervisor agree that the Baptist home was well aware of her sexual orientation when she was hired. Pedreira was presented with what amounted to a "don't ask, don't tell" scenario in which she was told her private life wouldn't be an impediment to her job, so long as her homosexuality was not discussed in the workplace.

Under normal circumstances, Pedreira's termination would not be a matter for the courts. Religious institutions hire and fire employees for a variety of reasons all the time, and since neither federal nor Kentucky state anti-discrimination laws protect homosexuals, Pedreira would have little recourse available. (Even in states with laws barring employment discrimination against gays, religious institutions are often exempt.)

However, the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children is not just a private religious facility. Founded as a denominational charity in 1869, the Baptist home last year received $13 million of its $19 million budget from Kentucky taxpayers. This year, staffers told the Associated Baptist Press that $15 million of its $21 million budget is coming from the state. Moreover, public dollars finance the salaries of most of the home's employees, and in fact, paid the salary for Pedreira while she was employed there.

In light of the facility's relationship with and financial benefits from the state of Kentucky, serious legal questions arise from its practice of using religion to dictate its employment practices.

Pedreira sought assistance to help challenge her dismissal. Attorneys for Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Kentucky affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union contacted Smithwick to insist that the home end its religiously based employment policy and compensate Pedreira for her unlawful termination.

The attorneys also tried to work with state government officials, seeking to negotiate an arrangement in which the KBHC could continue to use its employment practices as part of its religious mission but would no longer receive funding from the state.

On April 17, after months of unsuccessful settlement negotiations, Americans United and the ACLU brought suit against the KBHC and the state of Kentucky on behalf of Pedreira and seven others. The complaint in Pedreira v. Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, filed in U.S. district court in Louisville, charges that the state cannot give taxpayer dollars to a religious group that uses the money to advance its religious agenda.

When asked what she would like to see happen as a result of the lawsuit, Pedreira told Church & State, "I would like fair-minded people to be educated and outraged that their tax dollars are going to religious organizations so that they can evangelize and/or condemn the people in their care."

In addition to Pedreira, other plaintiffs in the case are three members of the clergy, a long-time civil rights activist and a couple whose son was helped by Pedreira at the children's home.

One of the plaintiffs is Paul Simmons, an ordained Baptist minister, a professor at the University of Louisville and a former professor of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (in the days before the school's fundamentalist takeover). He is also a member of the Board of Trustees for Americans United.

At a Louisville press conference announcing the filing of the lawsuit, Simmons took the KBHC to task for its activities, pointing to what he sees as legal and moral wrongs.

"For me," said Simmons, "this lawsuit should be a call for Southern Baptists to recapture their tradition of separation of church and state, which they have badly compromised in the past two decades.... Churches should get their hands out of the public coffers, and government should stop trying to use churches as proxy service providers."

Added Simmons, "The separation of church and state is a tradition rooted in a wisdom this nation will forget at its own peril."

Noting the proximity between Easter and the time the suit was filed, Simmons also reflected on his personal religious convictions. "This is a time for coming to terms with our need for repentance and our involvement in the suffering of those who are condemned to prejudice of the most vicious and de-personalizing sort," he said. "The cries and anguish of homosexual children of God are heard in heaven. We hope they will also be heard on earth."

The KBHC's Smithwick told the Western Recorder, a publication of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, that the lawsuit is motivated by hostility towards the home's religious beliefs.

"We are coming from a traditional base and not a politically correct base, and that's what this is all about," Smithwick said. "It's about normalizing homosexuality in America." He also told the Freedom Forum Online news website that his agency's employment policy is a public health issue.

"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 said. (Smithwick's remarks are apparently based on a discredited "study" circulated several years ago by anti-gay activists.)

However, a review of the legal complaint shows that the core issue in the case is not homosexuality, but whether a faith-based agency can advance its religious mission with state tax dollars.

"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 lawsuit says. "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."

Said the Rev. Barry Lynn, Americans United executive director, "Taxpayers' dollars must never be used to advance religion. This is a clear requirement of the Constitution, and we must insist that it be obeyed. Churches have every right to provide social services, but they may not receive tax funding if they discriminate on religious grounds. Churches can't pass the collection plate to the taxpayers if they're promoting religion."

Lynn's argument received some grudging support from a surprising source. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, expressed disdain for Americans United and the ACLU's lawsuit, but conceded the difficulties surrounding public funding of religious institutions.

"Their argument on its face is preposterous," Land told the Southern Baptist Convention's Baptist Press. "However, it does show the inherent danger in faith-based institutions accepting government money even to do such charitable work as providing children's homes."

Criticism of the KBHC's decision to fire Pedreira came from a variety of circles.

The grandparents of one boy who Pedreira helped contacted the Baptist home to express their disappointment. "We feel she should not be judged by her lifestyle, but on the performance of her duties and ability to help these children with their problems," the grandparents wrote.

In addition, to protest the home's decision to sack Pedreira, five of her former coworkers resigned in protest, including Cox, the agency's program director to whom Pedreira's homosexuality was first reported.

Cox told Louisville's Courier-Journal that the KBHC's discriminatory practices are in conflict with the code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. "For me to continue to work for an agency that embraces that is against my ethics and personal belief," Cox told the newspaper.

The Department of Social Work of Spalding University in Louisville and the University of Louisville's Kent School of Social Work also protested the firing by announcing that students from the respective universities will no longer participate in social work at the KBHC.

Even outside of Kentucky, interest in this case has garnered considerable interest because of the policy debate surrounding public funding of faith-based institutions. Accordingly, experts believe the Pedreira lawsuit will have national significance because of the trend among federal and state officials to move toward tax subsidies for religious social services. The concept, known as "charitable choice," has gained in popularity in political circles since its inception in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and continues to be pushed in Congress and the state legislatures.

Said AU's Lynn, "Charitable choice gives no choice at all to Americans who fail to meet the religious standards of churches that get public funding. Some religious agencies want to take taxpayers' money, then deny employment opportunities to those same taxpayers on religious grounds. It's fundamentally unfair."

Steven K. Green, legal director of Americans United, described Pedreira's firing as a "travesty."

"The state is basically subsidizing religious discrimination," Green said. "Representatives for the home have been clear that the basis for firing Alicia is their religious beliefs and advancing their religious mission. In essence, Alicia is a public employee whose salary is paid by taxpayers. The state has delegated to the KBHC the authority to impose a religious test on its employees, something the state would be prohibited from doing under the Constitution.

"This case is based on principle," Green added. "Whether Alicia is gay, handicapped or African-American, if the discrimination is religiously based and subsidized by the taxpayers, it's wrong."

As for Pedreira, it's been difficult to get life back to normal after losing her job.

"[Things now are] difficult to be truly honest," Pedreira said. "I thought I was handling things well for the past year or so, but recently I have reached my threshold. I am stressed and I have come to realize that my career plans are a shambles.

"[The controversy] has caused problems and stress in my relationship," she added. "The damage feels like a nice- looking house that termites have ravaged. If you put much pressure on the walls they will crumble. Nothing is normal; it just looks that way. I feel I am spinning without direction, and much like a top, I will see where it ends."