Church, State And Job Discrimination

Kentucky Showdown

For over two centuries, church-state separationists have insisted that the First Amendment prohibits ministries from using public funds to advance their religious beliefs. We'll soon find out if this principle is still valid in our courts.

This critical church-state tenet is being put to the test in a lawsuit sponsored by Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Alicia Pedreira and other Kentucky taxpayers.

In 1998, the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children (KBHC) hired Pedreira as a family counselor. In her professional capacity, Pedreira was an excellent employee. Her career was cut short, however, when some co-workers discovered that Pedreira is gay. Baptist officials decided she could no longer work for them because her homosexuality violated the religious mission of the facility.

The Baptist home is free, of course, to interpret scripture however it pleases. If those who run a ministry believe that religion should be the basis on which individuals are hired or fired, that's their business. But when they employ that approach with tax dollars, it becomes everyone's business.

The KBHC gets most of its budget from taxpayers. Last year, $13 million of the home's $19 million budget (nearly 70 percent) was financed by the state. This year, taxpayers are picking up the tab for $15 million of a $21 million budget (over 70 percent). In fact, the salaries of most of the home's employees, including Pedreira's, were paid for by tax dollars.

This facility may be the "largest private provider of child welfare in Kentucky" as it claims, but a private group shouldn't ask the taxpayers to finance its religious mission. If the KBHC wants to discriminate, it should do so on its own dime.

The state government of Kentucky and the KBHC have developed close ties. Troubled youths are sent to the KBHC by state agencies, and in turn taxpayers finance a majority of the home's programs. Accordingly, the facility needs to recognize that with subsidies come responsibilities. Among them should be the duty not to use publicly funded services to advance religion.

When the courts review this case, they should reiterate that religiously based employment discrimination subsidized by taxpayers is illegal.