The Time is Now to Rally Behind Sunrise Children’s Services

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According to a recent story in the Courier-Journal, the commonwealth of Kentucky is nearing a settlement in a lawsuit alleging that taxpayer dollars were being used by Sunrise Children’s Services to proselytize children. Among the terms of the settlement is a provision singling out Sunrise Children’s Services, stating that “the commonwealth must provide documentation on Sunrise Children’s Services’ religious activities and accommodations.”

According to reporter Peter Smith, Sunrise is not taking part in the settlement and is preparing to challenge parts of it.

Sunrise Children’s Services, Inc. provided the following statement in response to the press release issued earlier this week by Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

The plaintiffs’ declaration of victory is as premature as it is inaccurate. From the time when this lawsuit was filed in April 2000, Sunrise has enjoyed a string of successes in defeating plaintiffs’ various legal theories. Only one claim remains to be decided, and Sunrise is now poised to obtain a favorable judgment from the court on that claim.

In November 2012, Sunrise filed a summary judgment motion asking the court to rule that the Commonwealth’s partial reimbursements to Sunrise for the secular services it provides to children who are wards of the Commonwealth do not violate the Establishment Clause.

Sunrise receives these partial reimbursements on the same terms and conditions as the other fifty religious or secular agencies that contract with the Commonwealth to care for Kentucky’s neediest children.

“Recent rulings by the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts make it absolutely clear that a government may provide benefits to faith-based entities without violating the Establishment Clause if the benefits are available to secular and religious entities alike. The Commonwealth’s existing system complies with this requirement,” said John Sheller, Sunrise’s attorney and a member of Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLC.

“Rather than responding to our motion, which would finally put this lawsuit to rest, the plaintiffs instead sought a separate peace with the Commonwealth that imposes unnecessary new burdens on Sunrise and the other agencies that contract with the Commonwealth,” Sheller added.

“I guess they realized that the facts and the law weren’t on their side, so instead of responding to our arguments they decided to declare victory and go home. But after thirteen years of litigation, we deserve a ruling on the merits of our case.”

The press release issued earlier today by Americans United contains the following mischaracterizations:

  • There is no evidence that Sunrise “coercively imposed Christianity upon children” and had a “history of religious coercion.” In fact, Sunrise has a clear policy prohibiting religious coercion.
  • It is mathematically impossible that taxpayer funds were used to “underwrite” any religious activity. Kentucky’s low reimbursement rates for the secular services provided by Sunrise only cover 60-70% of the Sunrise’s actual osts. The shortfall is made up by donations from private citizens who support Sunrise’s mission of caring for abused and neglected children.
  • There is no basis for the statement that children “feel pressured to accept a certain set of beliefs in exchange for help” from Sunrise. Sunrise accepts children from all religious backgrounds as well as children who have no religious affiliation. This policy is consistent with the existing rules that must be followed by any agency that contracts with the Commonwealth to provide care to children.

Despite the plaintiffs’ attempt to seek a premature end to this litigation, Sunrise Children’s Services, Inc. intends to seek a final ruling on the merits of the plaintiffs’ Establishment Clause claims.

The time for Kentucky Baptists to rally behind Sunrise Children’s Services through prayer, financial support and by becoming foster parents is now. Having been singled out from numerous private, faith-based care providers, I applaud Sunrise Children’s Services for refusing to go along with the commonwealth’s settlement. Protections already are in place to ensure that a child is not coerced, and that his cultural and religious backgrounds are respected.

As believers, we know that the only way to come to Christ is by clearly understanding the message of the gospel and willingly accepting God’s gift of salvation. What Sunrise has done for nearly 150 years is to create an environment where children receive holistic care: emotional, physical, and spiritual. I think it is safe to assume that children removed from their home because of abuse and neglect need holistic care, the kind of care provided by Kentucky Baptists through Sunrise. I’m concerned that the commonwealth’s settlement would throw cold water on the essential responsibility of spiritual nurture.

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