LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–As national debate escalates over President Bush’s proposed faith-based initiatives, a Kentucky Baptist-related court case is tackling the same issue.
Pedreira vs. Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, a lawsuit addressing religious discrimination and public funding of faith-based organizations, was filed last year in U.S. District Court. Judge Charles Simpson dismissed the discrimination claims July 23 but ruled that the funding issue can move forward.
The KBHC, affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, has contracted since the mid-1970s with the state of Kentucky to provide social services for children and families. The suit charges that the KBHC is violating the First Amendment by “using these public funds for religious indoctrination of the children entrusted to its care.”
KBHC President Bill Smithwick said he believes the outcome of the suit will be “precedent-setting for all faith-based organizations that provide human services.”
He added, however, that children’s homes officials “don’t feel like in the services we’ve provided that there’s been any entanglement in any way.”
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he believes the KBHC case “speaks volumes about the kind of activities we’ll see if President Bush’s faith-based initiative becomes law.”
“Religious groups will be able to pass the collection plate to taxpayers, but still be permitted to discriminate,” Lynn said. “That’s morally wrong and it should be illegal.”
Paul Simmons, a plaintiff in the case, echoed Lynn’s views.
“President Bush has made it a crusade to launch an initiative against the separation of church and state, which I think is badly misguided and badly misinformed,” said Simmons, a professor at the University of Louisville. “A lot of groups want public funds to ease their own fiscal crunch. The faith-based initiative should be opposed and opposed very strongly.”
Smithwick said he believes “organizations like ours can provide a very meaningful social service and not be coercive in our mission and our religion.”
“On the other hand,” he said, “if too many restraints are put on faith-based organizations like ours, we lose our identity and our very uniqueness that make us effective.”
Smithwick said financial support of the KBHC by Kentucky Baptists “does provide opportunities for children to experience the Christian faith but that in no way is coerced.” Emphasizing that “faith is a choice,” he said religious coercion “is in contradiction with our Baptist polity.”
Smithwick, who was named KBHC president in 1997, said he “didn’t come here to get involved in national political issues like this but if we are the ones who must weather this political storm, we’ll weather it with the firm conviction that we will not acquiesce to political or financial threats from anyone. … We are doing our best to be faithful to our mission and our history with Kentucky Baptists.”
Describing the debate over First Amendment issues as “a matter of interpretation,” Smithwick added, “That’s what this is all about: How will the Establishment Clause and freedom of religion ultimately be interpreted?”