Courier Journal [Louisville KY]
June 15, 2021
By Deborah Yetter
In a case that could decide a dispute between Kentucky child welfare officials and a Baptist children’s agency, the U.S. Supreme Court is close to ruling on whether private agencies may reject LGBTQ foster and adoptive parents because of religious beliefs.
Sunrise Children’s Services, citing religious convictions, has refused to sign a contract with Kentucky to care for abused and neglected children that would ban discrimination based on “sexual orientation” or “gender” identity,” as well as race, age and other factors.
Officials with the administration of Gov. Andy Beshear have said they will stop placing children with the agency by July 1 if Sunrise refuses to sign a standard contract that contains anti-discrimination language the state says is required by federal regulations.
But a ruling in favor of Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia could require Kentucky to recognize the religious convictions the Baptist agency has cited as grounds for refusing to sign the current contract.
The case is among 18 still pending before the Supreme Court expected to be decided by the end of the June term, according to SCOTUSblog, a non-partisan legal blog that follows the court.
It involves a legal challenge by Catholic Social Services, which sued Philadelphia after the city excluded it from some services when the agency, citing religious freedom, declined to consider same-sex couples as foster parents.
A decision in the case would come one year after a Supreme Court ruling that federal civil rights law protects gay and transgender workers from employment discrimination.
The decision was widely celebrated by LGBTQ advocates as one that strengthened federal anti-discrimination protections.
But a Supreme Court ruling in favor of Catholic Social Services will provide “a big loophole” to those who cite religious reasons for declining to accept LGBTQ antidiscrimination terms, said Sam Marcosson, a professor at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law who teaches constitutional law and has been following the case.
“The decision of that case is very likely to ultimately determine whether the state is compelled to continue to contract with Sunrise on Sunrise’s terms,” Marcosson said.
Marcosson said the dispute between Catholic Social Services and Philadelphia is virtually identical to the dispute between Sunrise and Kentucky in that it involves a faith-based agency’s rejection of a contract that bans discrimination against gay or same-sex couples as foster or adoptive parents.
The case hinges on the protection of religious freedom, which Marcosson predicted will become a key issue for the right-leaning Supreme Court, dominated by conservative justices including three appointed by former President Donald Trump.
“It is the most prominent and significant area in which the court is poised to move significantly from the current jurisprudence,” Marcosson said. “It is ground zero.”
Sunrise is controlled by the Kentucky Baptist Convention, which views homosexuality as a sin and marriage as only between a man and woman.
The subject has sparked several controversies over the years involving Sunrise’s refusal to hire openly gay employees or accept gay couples as foster parents.
Sunrise’s website said it offers a “Christ-centered foster care ministry” and accepts adults as foster parents. It accepts married couples but not couples who are “cohabitating.”
Kentucky Today, an online publication of the Baptist convention, reported the agency refers same-sex couples seeking to become foster-adoptive parents to other agencies and does the same for LGBTQ job applicants.
Catholic Social Services, in its arguments before the Supreme Court in November, said it refers same sex couples to other agencies.
Sunrise has contracted with the state since the 1970s to help care for children removed from homes because of abuse or neglect, Dale Suttles, president of Sunrise, told a legislative committee June 2.
Sunrise is one of multiple outside agencies, most non-profit and many faith-based, the state contracts for child and family services.
But prior to the Beshear administration, Sunrise had been exempted from certain provisions, said its lawyer, John Sheller, speaking at the June 2 meeting of the joint House-Senate Appropriations and Revenue meeting.
“Sunrise has always found a way to partner with the commonwealth by tweaking a few words in the contract,” Sheller said.
But last year, when the annual contract came up for renewal under the Beshear administration, “they wanted Sunrise to sign the exact same contract that every other provider signs,” Sheller said.
Sunrise has been operating without a contract since July 1.
Over the past year, the state has paid Sunrise about $16 million to care for children and provide other services, such as family counseling, Suttles told the committee.
The dispute also has created a partisan divide, with Republicans who control the Kentucky House and the state’s five elected constitutional officers, all Republican, urging Beshear, a Democrat, to reinstate the Sunrise contract.
“The Beshear administration is forcing Sunrise to choose between continuing to serve Kentucky children or abandon its religious beliefs,” Attorney General Daniel Cameron, one of the five constitutional officers, said in a statement.
But others see the issue differently, including Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, who lives in Louisville and is a fellow with the Faith and Progressive Policy Institute at the Center for American Progress.
The focus should be on finding the best possible homes and services for children who have experienced abuse or neglect, rather than excluding some foster and adoptive parents because of sexual orientation, he said.
“Turning the message of love preached by Jesus into a reason to discriminate doesn’t help children in any way,” Graves-Fitzsimmons said. “Baptists have a long history of championing religious liberty. People are turning it into a license to discriminate.”