Attorney: Court case not settled as Sunrise seeks state pact renewal

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- A long-standing case between Sunrise Children’s Service, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and a former Sunrise employee is far from finished, according to an attorney for the children’s services agency.


“The case originally was both an employment discrimination case by the former employee and a First Amendment case against the state by taxpayers,” said Sunrise attorney John Sheller. The discrimination case was dismissed in 2001, he said.


Alicia Pedreira vs. Sunrise Children’s Services and Cabinet for Health and Family Services is an ongoing case in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky.


In a press conference on May 10, Gov. Andy Beshear said he had been advised the case had been settled. Sunrise is in negotiations with the state to sign an annual contract, but talks have been slow.


Sheller says three times the state has tried to bring in the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State to bring a settlment in the case over the past 20 years, but Sunrise has never agreed to the settlement.


“They try to enter into an agreement with those third parties that dictate the terms of the Commonwealth’s contract with Sunrise," Sheller said. "They can’t do that in a way that infringes Sunrise’s rights.” 


Sheller says they will appeal the decision back to the Court of Appeals again if necessary.


“Sunrise is a religiously affiliated and religiously motivated entity that has certain First Amendment rights that can't be arbitrarily trampled on by the government,” Sheller said.


Sunrise is a 152-year-old agency of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. It was founded in 1869 by a group of ladies at Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville who wanted to care for orphaned children. The agency provides foster care, adoption and residential and therapeutic care for around 1,000 children. Many of the children are in the custory of the state.


The child care agency is seeking an addendum to the state contract that they believe would protect their deeply held religious convictions. Contract concerns are based on wording that deals with foster parents, hiring practices and people who identify as LGBTQ+.


Beshear also said new federal regulations are impacting the contract process with Sunrise. Sheller disagrees.


“There's also been some suggestion that federal law, either federal statutes or federal regulations or something like that, dictate these contract terms. That is false because federal law protects religious freedom under a statute called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which requires all areas of the federal government and all federal laws to accommodate free exercise of religion,” said Sheller.


Sheller acknowleges somes Supreme Court cases decided in the 1960s and 1970s affected the religious liberty of organizations like Sunrise, but he says they have long been dismissed.


They are closely following Fulton vs. Philadelphia, a case that could receive a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the next few weeks. Sunrise’s leadership believes the issues in the case are similar to what they are facing.


“I think it's important to make it clear that Sunrise serves all children, regardless of the child's race, sex, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity. Every child deserves a loving home and that's what Sunrise tries to provide,” Sheller said.


Sheller says the agency refers same-sex couples who want to provide foster care or pursue adoption to other agencies in the state who work with same-sex couples.

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