Louisville, Ky. -- In a ground-breaking case that will test the boundaries of tax aid to church-run social services, two civil liberties groups filed suit today in federal court against public funding of a Baptist children's home in Kentucky
Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union charged that the state government may not pay for services at the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children (KBHC) because the religious group uses the money to advance its religious agenda.
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," continued Lynn, who is an attorney as well as a minister in the United Church of Christ, "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."
The dispute over state funding of the Baptist agency arose in October 1998, when the KBHC fired family specialist Alicia Pedreira because she is a lesbian. Despite exemplary job performance, Pedreira was terminated because Baptist officials said homosexuality conflicts with Christian beliefs that are central to the agency's mission.
The firing took place even though $13 million of the Baptist home's $19 million budget last year came from the state government. Sources say only 5 percent of the religious agency's funding came from Baptist churches.
The lawsuit filed today in federal district court in Louisville charges that the constitutional separation of church and state forbids government funding of a religious organization that discriminates on the basis of religion and uses taxpayer money to advance a particular religious viewpoint.
The Kentucky case has national significance because of the trend among federal and state officials to move toward tax subsidies for religious social services. The concept, usually called "charitable choice," has gained in popularity among politicians and is being 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."
Said Jeff Vessels, executive director of the ACLU of Kentucky, "Both the state and Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children must be held accountable. Most citizens do not want their tax dollars used to discriminate, which is what is happening here."
Plaintiffs in the Pedreira v. Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children case include Pedreira, three members of the clergy and an African-American civil rights activist. A couple whose child was helped by Pedreira at the Kentucky children's home also are plaintiffs. The couple said she was the first counselor to make a difference in their son's life.
Americans United is a church-state watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents some 60,000 members, including residents of Kentucky.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.