LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children’s decision to fire a lesbian employee nearly three years ago did not constitute religious discrimination, according to a July 23 ruling by U.S. District Judge Charles Simpson.
In the same ruling, Simpson declined to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claim that state funding of KBHC services violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
KBHC administrators dismissed Alicia Pedreira in 1998 after they were informed of her lesbian lifestyle. The letter terminating her employment as a family specialist stated she was being fired “because her admitted homosexual lifestyle is contrary to Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children core values.”
Simpson’s ruling noted that the KBHC’s “intentional exclusion of homosexuals from employment does not run afoul of Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) unless it constitutes discrimination on the basis of religion.”
The children’s homes’ “code of conduct, although requiring behavior which is consistent with KBHC’s values, leaves the religious freedoms of employees and potential employees unfettered,” he wrote. “The civil rights statutes protect religious freedom, not personal lifestyle choices.”
Simpson dismissed religious discrimination claims by Pedreira and co-plaintiff Karen Vance, a lesbian who claimed KBHC’s policies prohibited her from seeking employment there.
“It was the behavior — the acceptance and/or practice of a homosexual lifestyle — which constituted the basis for the employment action, not the belief or practice of religion,” Simpson wrote. “The religious freedoms of the plaintiffs have not been impaired by the conduct requirement of KBHC.”
Concerning the claim that government funding of the KBHC is an unconstitutional establishment of religion, Simpson noted the plaintiffs “allege that public funds are being expended on care and services infused with the teachings of the Baptist faith.” They further claim that the KBHC’s “religious functions are inseparable from its non-religious function.”
Simpson rejected a motion by KBHC and Kentucky state officials, also named as defendants in the case, to dismiss the Establishment Clause claims. He ruled those allegations are sufficient for that portion of the lawsuit to move forward.
KBHC President Bill Smithwick said he is pleased with the judge’s ruling concerning religious discrimination.
“We’ve contended all along we’ve not been in violation of any local, state or federal law. I think the judge’s ruling vindicates us on that.
“Anytime you have something like that pending, it’s a relief to have some clarification,” Smithwick said. Though “it is by no means over for us,” he added, “It’s good to have that part behind us.”
Pedreira and Vance were represented by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Eric Ferrero, an ACLU spokesman, said he was disappointed by the judge’s decision but pleased that the suit’s constitutional questions will move forward. He said ACLU officials have not yet decided whether to appeal the religious discrimination claims.
“Alicia Pedreira was fired for reasons deeply related to religion,” Ferrero said. “If KBHC were a private institution, that would be their right. … Once you’re publicly funded, things shift a little bit. You don’t get to have it both ways.”
State contracts to reimburse the KBHC for services to children currently total approximately 75 percent of the children’s homes’ annual budget. Smithwick noted, however, that the state reimbursements cover only about 80 percent of the cost of the contracted services.
Amid questions last year over renewing the agency’s contract with the state, Smithwick said, “We made the tough decision that if we had to walk away from contracting with the state to maintain our integrity and our identity, we would do that at the expense of having to close down about three-fourths of what we do.”
Smithwick said the current contract indicates the state remains satisfied with the reimbursement arrangement that dates back to the mid-1970s.
Even with the new contract, Smithwick said the number of referrals from the state has declined from 350 children to 270 over the past two years. Attributing part of that decline to firing Pedreira, he said new approaches by the Kentucky Cabinet for Families and Children in placing children with private agencies also have impacted the number of referrals.
Smithwick said the KBHC board “has said we will continue to service these children and have this continual relationship with the state so long as it doesn’t impede our basic mission. We will continue as we have been doing since 1869 without any variance.”
Paul Simmons, one of seven plaintiffs in the suit, said the KBHC “was successful in arguing this was a lifestyle issue, not a religious faith issue.”
“In the mind of the court, the issue is based on moral standards and not religious faith standards,” said Simmons, a professor at the University of Louisville and former professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. “If that is the grounds on which it is determined, that is perfectly understandable and supportable.”
He warned, however, that the distinction between moral and religious views about homosexuality remains “a very contention point” within religious circles.
“We need to be very careful as Christians that we not argue ourselves into a corner in justifying bigotry in the name of faith,” Simmons said. “That is a central issue in regard to homosexuality.”
Smithwick’s response? “I think the thing that really bothers me the most is being perceived as bigoted and narrow-minded when in fact that is not the case at all,” he said. “We did the right thing.”