LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) - A federal judge has thrown out a legal settlement that would have allowed the American Civil Liberties Union to review whether a Southern Baptist foster home uses state funds to proselytize children.
The settlement in a lawsuit the ACLU filed against Sunrise Children's Services, the Kentucky Baptist Convention (KBC) and the state of Kentucky is not viable, U.S. District Judge Charles Simpson ruled May 30, because it could not be enforced under current state laws. Americans United for Separation of Church and State also is a plaintiff in the suit.
The decision is a win for the KBC and Sunrise, who appealed the decision brokered in 2015 by then-Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's administration. But the dismissal means the lawsuit filed in 2000 will continue in the courts.
KBC Executive Director Paul Chitwood said the Baptist groups will continue the legal fight, which will likely remain protracted.
"That settlement was inappropriate and put an unnecessary burden on Sunrise, discriminating against Sunrise and not other private entities," Chitwood said. "The court obviously agreed with that position, and we also see this as just another step in a very long process of protecting the rights of the faith-based provider in Kentucky."
Sunrise, a nonprofit behavioral health services organization owned by the KBC and supported with state funding, was the sole provider named in the suit and accused of violating children's rights.
"The accusation has been Sunrise is forcing religion on children in its residential care, and that just simply isn't the case," Chitwood told BP. "So we'll continue the long walk here with trust in the system that, at the end of the day, it will be proven that the original charges were false."
He described Sunrise as a "strong partner" with the state in caring for kids, and said the home seeks to continue doing its job. Sunrise currently has 1,217 children in its system, Chitwood said, about 400 of whom are wards of the state. Kentucky has more than 8,000 children in foster care statewide.
"All private care providers are accountable to the state and reviewed by the state," he said, but setting up the ACLU to review Sunrise in particular seemed discriminatory. The ACLU was never given Sunrise records because the case has been held up in court. Current Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, according to news reports, has always opposed the settlement that was brokered months before he took office.
Simpson, senior judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky in Louisville, issued his ruling May 29 after the case was remanded from the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Sixth District.
"The Court of Appeals returned the case for the explicit purpose of having this court decide whether the agreement reached between the plaintiffs and the Commonwealth Defendants to settle the case, an agreement which it found was a consent decree, was fair, reasonable and consistent with the public interest," Simpson wrote in his opinion.
The settlement requires actions that "do not fall within the existing statutory provisions and would therefore require rulemaking to modify existing regulations or to enact new provisions to allow for legal implementation of the Settlement Agreement," Simpson wrote in dismissing the settlement. The defendants had no intention of drafting new laws when the settlement was reached, Simpson wrote.
Chitwood, a member of the Sunrise board of directors, said the children's home will continue its fight in court.
"We really anticipate it's going to be another year or two before anything moves forward on it," Chitwood said. "That's what we're told the timeline will be."
Sunrise Children's Services President Dale Suttles was not available for comment this morning, but he has denied forcing children to adopt Christianity.
In comments to the Associated Press, he said Sunrise recruits some foster parents from churches, and as such, children in foster care might attend church with their foster families "like any other child would."
Sunrise provides foster care, therapeutic treatment, residential care and community-based services statewide.