LOUISVILLE, KY -- In a first-of-its-kind case that may change the landscape of the national debate over whether religious groups that discriminate should receive taxpayer funds, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State April 17 filed a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Kentucky and a publicly-funded religious organization that fired a lesbian employee.
For several weeks, the ACLU has been negotiating with the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which has been reexamining its contracts with Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children because of the organizations religious policy against hiring gay men and lesbians. Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children received $13 million of its total $19 million budget last year from the state.
"Both the state and Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children must be held accountable," said Jeff Vessels, Executive Director of the ACLU of Kentucky. "Most citizens do not want their tax dollars used to discriminate, which is what is happening here."
Todays lawsuit opens a new front in the battle against employment discrimination, by charging that Alicia Pedreira, a lesbian, was fired because she did not share her employers religious beliefs about homosexuality. As is the case in most states, Kentucky law prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, but does not address discrimination based on sexual orientation. While Louisvilles Fairness Ordinance prohibits discrimination against gay men and lesbians, the local law does not apply to religious organizations like Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children.
Todays lawsuit also raises the serious question about where the Constitutional rule of church-state separation draws the line when it comes to government funding of religious organizations. The lawsuit alleges that Kentucky is violating the U.S. Constitutions Establishment clause by financing a religious organization that discriminates on the basis of religion and uses taxpayer money to fund a particular brand of Christianity.
"Everyone agrees that Alicia Pedreira was a good counselor. She was fired not because she couldnt do the job, but because of religious intolerance and discrimination," said Michael Adams, Associate Director of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project and the lead attorney in the case. "If Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children believes that its religion teaches it to discriminate, thats its right. But to pay for it with taxpayer money violates the separation of church and state required by the Establishment Clause."
Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children is the largest "private" provider of youth social services in Kentucky, and describes itself as the oldest Southern Baptist child care ministry in America. The facility was founded in 1869, and began accepting public funds in the late 1970s. Last year, less than 5 percent of the facilitys budget was from Baptist church groups. On the same day Alicia Pedreira was fired in October 1998, Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children enacted a written policy that homosexuality would prohibit employment there because it is inconsistent with the organizations Christian values.
Todays lawsuit addresses an increasing trend of funneling state and federal taxpayer funds to religious organizations that provide public health and social services. Since 1996, Congress has considered several bills that would direct public funds to religious groups and authorize the groups to discriminate on the basis of religious beliefs. This means taxpayer money would pay for discrimination based on marital or familial status, gender, sexual orientation or pregnancy status. Some of those bills have passed, while more than a half-dozen are currently pending.
"Publicly funded jobs must not be subject to a religious litmus test," said Ayesha Khan, litigation counsel for Americans United, a Washington, D.C.-based constitutional liberties group.
Concern for children throughout Kentucky is a driving force behind the lawsuit announced today, Vessels said. "When the parents of a boy at Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children told us how devastated they were when Alicia was fired, because she was the first counselor to make a difference in their sons life, we knew this case had to move forward," Vessels said. "And when the parents shared their concern with Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children and received a response that compared lesbians and gay men to alcoholics and drug addicts, the parents offered to do anything they could to help us end this travesty."
The parents have joined Alicia Pedreira as plaintiffs in the case. Also serving as plaintiffs are another woman who is barred from employment at Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children because she is a lesbian, as well as three clergy members and an African-American civil rights activist who object to their tax dollars being used to fund religious discrimination.
After Pedreira was fired, childrens advocates and social workers also stepped forward to voice their concern for youth in Kentucky Baptist Homes for Childrens care. Several of the organizations employees including Pedreiras former supervisor resigned in protest. The Schools of Social Work at the University of Louisville and Spalding University stopped placing student interns at Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children.
The case, filed this morning, is Alicia Pedreira, et al. v. Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, et al. Attorneys on the case include Adams of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, Khan of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, David Friedman of the ACLU of Kentucky and Vicki Buba of Stone, Pregliasco, Haynes & Buba.