News Articles

1998 firing of lesbian worker pushes Ky. Baptist agency into federal court

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–A lawsuit over the firing of a lesbian employee has been filed against the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children by the employee in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The lawsuit, which also includes former Southern Baptist Theological Seminary ethics professor Paul Simmons among its eight plaintiffs, targets an estimated $12 million to $15 million in state funding received by Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children.

Simmons, of Louisville, is a trustee of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and recent chairman of the Kentucky Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s theological education committee. Another key member of Americans United’s trustee board is Brent Walker, executive director of the CBF-supported Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.

Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children’s annual budget is $21 million, including funding to care for about 360 abused and/or neglected children in eight residential facilities across the state. It the largest private childcare program in the state, providing care for an overall 3,000 children and families each year in the residential facilities, 20 counseling sites across the state, 100 foster homes and, among other ministries, a pregnancy counseling and adoption program and a family preservation and family reunification program.

Most of the children in the care of Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children have been placed by the state, which has had a contract with the Baptist agency since the late 1970s.

The lesbian employee, Alicia Pedreira, was fired in October 1998 after a picture with her homosexual partner — and with Pedreira wearing an “Isle of Lesbos” T-shirt — was displayed in a photo contest at the Kentucky State Fair in August.

A news release distributed nationally by Americans United for Separation of Church and State called the case “ground-breaking” because it will “test the boundaries of tax aid to church-run social services.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said it is “astounding and profoundly disturbing that Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU would argue that a children’s home deciding not to have a lesbian family specialist in direct contact with children was advancing their religion.”

“There was a time in the not too recent past when such [children’s homes] actions would be described as common sense and basic decency,” Land noted.

“It sounds as if,” he said, “AU and ACLU are arguing that mandating homosexuals and lesbians not serve on staff in a ministry is the equivalent in their eyes to teaching baptism by immersion and congregational polity.

“Their argument on its face is preposterous; 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,” Land said.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Louisville on April 18.

Bill Smithwick, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, told news media the agency will defend itself against the suit. Homosexuals are not good role models for the Baptist Homes’ children, many of whom have been sexually abused or are sexually confused, Smithwick told the media.

Apart from the lawsuit, Kentucky officials, including Gov. Paul Patton, are deciding whether to terminate the state’s ties to the Baptist ministry when the state contract expires June 30.

Smithwick told the media that losing the contract would be a serious blow to the agency, that layoffs would become necessary and, possibly, the closing of some of its operations across the state.

But the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children will not abandon its beliefs on homosexuality in order to keep its state contract, Smithwick said.

The agency’s board of directors decided in March to defend their belief that hiring homosexual counselors is “not the best way to care for troubled and abused children,” Smithwick said.

“We are not going to acquiesce to political pressure,” he said. It’s not “a religious issue. It’s a child-advocacy issue. What we’re talking about is what’s in the best interest of children.”

In a March 29 letter to Kentucky Baptist pastors, Smithwick emphasized that “no law, and nothing with our contracts with the state, requires us to employ people who engage in homosexual behavior to counsel our children,” according to a report in the Western Recorder state Baptist newsjournal by editor Trennis Henderson.

Noting that the KBHC has operated during most of its 130-year history with no state funds, Smithwick said state officials “came to us because they needed care for Kentucky’s abused and neglected children.”

Despite that relationship, he said the state’s Cabinet for Families and Children and the Department of Juvenile Justice “have indicated that they may not stand with us in this suit.”

Smithwick urged Kentucky Baptists to contact Gov. Paul Patton and state legislators, encouraging them to “stand for what is clearly in the best interests of Kentucky’s children.”

“We have never discriminated against the children and teens in our care for any reason,” Smithwick emphasized. “We have received no complaints about the treatment of children and teens with sexual identity issues.”

Noting that the KBHC is a faith-based organization, he added, “We believe for us to promote homosexual behavior is not in the best interest of any child. Such behavior could have devastating emotional and physical consequences.”

Kentucky Baptist Convention President Terry Wilder, pastor of Burlington Baptist Church, told the Western Recorder he commends Smithwick and KBHC trustees “for taking the stand for what is right, for what is biblical and what I believe God would have us do in this situation.”

In a March 30 news conference at Louisville’s Walnut Street Baptist Church, Smithwick recounted, “We have met with the ACLU but have not been able to reach an agreement.” He said state officials “would prefer that we settle with the ACLU,” then noted, “We don’t think we’ll be able to reach an out-of-court settlement.”

KBHC’s employment application specifies that employees “are expected to exhibit values in their professional conduct and personal lifestyles that are consistent with the Christian mission and purpose of the statement.” And KBHC trustees have amended the agency’s hiring policies to specifically exclude from employment people who engage in homosexual activity.

An ACLU official, Michael Adams from New York, in announcing the lawsuit April 17, told the media, “It’s wrong for good, qualified employees like Alicia Pedreira who lose their job over something that has nothing to do with their abilities and skills.”

The Louisville Courier-Journal quoted Pedreira, the former employee, as saying, “My firing took away my livelihood. My civil rights were assaulted. And I’m still in the process of recovering from that. … The most important thing to me is that this doesn’t happen to other people.” Pedreira now works as a supervisor for Seven Counties Services, which provides mental health counseling and other assistance.

Simmons, meanwhile, was quoted as saying, “Baptists are people who are important to me, and they remain important to me. But they have, in my judgment, been found at a major fault publicly. And that fault is a miscarriage of justice, and that must now be held up for examination.”

Simmons said he hopes the suit will serve as a call to Baptists to recapture their tradition of advocating the separation of church and state.

“Churches should get their hands out of the public till,” he said. “And government should stop trying to use churches as proxy service providers. Churches cannot and should not do social work simply as a secular enterprise.”

The Baptist agency, which is based in Jeffersontown, fired Pedreira five months after she was hired as an art therapist and supervisor for the Spring Meadows Children’s Home in Middletown. The picture of Pedreira and her lesbian partner, taken by an amateur photographer at a local AIDS walk, had been entered in the state fair contest without Pedreira’s consent, the Courier-Journal reported in 1998.

Jack Cox, the KBHC manager who hired Pedreira, reportedly knew she was homosexual when she was hired. He and four other employees resigned in protest after administrators were informed of Pedreira’s homosexuality and dismissed her.

Additionally, the University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work and Spalding University withdrew their students from the children’s home programs contending, as the Courier-Journal put it at the time, that “discrimination against gays is inconsistent with the ethics and ideals of social work.”

The ACLU of Kentucky reportedly held a fund-raising reception March 1 in Louisville to help offset lawsuit expenses, the Western Recorder reported. The reception was followed by a public forum at Louisville’s First Unitarian Church. The forum featured Adams, associate director of ACLU’s national Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.