MOUNT WASHINGTON, Ky. (BP) — After enduring a dozen years of defending lawsuits stemming from the firing of a lesbian worker, the board of directors of Sunrise Children’s Services rejected a recommendation Nov. 8 to change the Kentucky Baptist childcare agency’s hiring practices.
Sunrise Children’s Services will continue its practice of “informing applicants that the organization does not hire gay people,” according to a press release from Brandi Felser, chief operating officer of Sunrise.
“Let us be clear about this vote,” said Joyce Smith, Sunrise board chair. “With this decision, we are not promoting anything other than the physical, mental and spiritual welfare of our children.
“We remain focused on our mission of providing love and support to the victimized children that Sunrise serves and our decision today will not affect the everyday care Sunrise provides to families and children.”
Upon hearing the board’s action, Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director Paul Chitwood rejoiced in “the courage and conviction exhibited by the board’s decision.”
Chitwood added, “While I know, given where our culture is headed, government funding for Sunrise may someday be in jeopardy, I recommit my personal and financial support as well as my advocacy for this Great Commandment ministry of Kentucky Baptists.
“We will stand with this board,” Chitwood pledged.
Dan Summerlin, president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, also lauded the “courageous” board’s decision and thanked its members for standing on God’s principles.
“I also want to thank all Kentucky Baptists for their prayers and efforts to express their feelings on this matter,” Summerlin said.
“My prayer is now for [Sunrise and the KBC] to move forward by sitting down together and working on building a stronger bond between SCS and the KBC,” said Summerlin, pastor of Paducah’s Lone Oak First Baptist Church.
In the news release, Sunrise President Bill Smithwick stated the board “understands and respects” the position of those who may not like its decision.
“For those that do not agree with our practice, we understand and we would love to have you join us in putting the kids first and support our mission of helping the least among us: victimized children who need a safe haven and the chance to see love and experience hope,” Smithwick said.
Smithwick added that he was hopeful that support remains strong to continue the mission of providing assistance to fragile young people who have been served by the organization since 1869.
“We need the assistance of caring people everywhere,” Smithwick said.
In a recent letter to Kentucky Baptist pastors, Smithwick disclosed that its board of directors was discussing the possibility of altering the ministry’s anti-discrimination policy. At an Aug. 16 meeting the proposal was tabled until the board’s meeting last Friday.
“The day is soon coming when sexual preference will become protected status attached to Federal monies and will likely be added to State monies, forcing anyone who accepts either to comply or close,” Smithwick wrote. “This is not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’ event ….
“Thus the core question, ‘Will Sunrise change its hiring practices or not?’ Smithwick continued. “Will we walk away from the broken, forsaken, lonely kids who can hear the gospel, find love, forgiveness, and hope through our mission because we choose to focus on one sin, while overlooking the many others? Or, will we seek the greater good to save the kids?”
Chitwood, however, opposed the proposed change in Sunrise’s hiring practices: “If the trustees decide to follow Smithwick and surrender biblical values to maintain government funding, then clearly they will have forsaken the Baptist character of Sunrise and become the equivalent of any secular corporation that contracts with the state to provide childcare.”
West Kentucky directors of missions launched a letter-writing campaign and petition drive calling for trustees to oppose changes in Sunrise’s hiring practices. The group, representing 12 Baptist associations, urged fellow DOMs across the state to “take a stand” for biblical values, stating, “This is not a battle against homosexuals, but a stand against this sin becoming so culturally acceptable that we evade calling it sin.”
Following the Aug. 16 meeting, one trustee, Rick Fyffe of Ashland, resigned in protest. Another, Stan Spees of Paducah, expressed his concerns to Kentucky Baptist Convention leaders.
In 1998, Sunrise, then known as Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, fired an employee when it became known that she was a lesbian. Since then, the agency has been embroiled in a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State over the use of taxpayer funds by faith-based organizations.
The Commonwealth has reached a settlement in the suit, including a stipulation that religiously-affiliated organizations receiving state funds neither pressure children to participate in religious activities nor read religious materials. Sunrise has opposed the agreement, claiming that it unfairly singles them out for scrutiny not required for other childcare agencies that contract with the state. Meanwhile, a suit filed against Sunrise by the former employee and three others remains in litigation.
Each year, messengers to the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s annual meeting approve trustees and directors of 10 agencies and institutions affiliated with the convention, including those serving on Sunrise’s board. Those organizations also receive funding from Kentucky Baptists through the Cooperative Program. Additionally, the Sunrise ministry has received support for decades from Kentucky Baptist churches and associations through the Thanksgiving Offering, Food Roundup and Mile of Pennies. According to Smithwick’s letter to pastors, such support totals about $1 million compared to the approximately $26 million that Sunrise receives annually from the state and federal governments.
Todd Deaton is editor of the Western Recorder (www.westernrecorder.org), newsjournal of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.