Clash between religious beliefs, gay rights jeopardizes Kentucky’s longstanding ties to adoption agency

Published 5:31 am Friday, May 28, 2021

A cultural clash pitting religious beliefs against gay rights has jeopardized Kentucky’s long-running relationship with a foster care and adoption agency affiliated with the Baptist church that serves some of the state’s most vulnerable children.

The standoff revolves around a clause in a new contract with the state that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and that Sunrise Children’s Services is refusing to sign.

It’s another round in a broader fight in states and the courts over religious liberty and LGBTQ rights, including whether businesses can refuse to provide services for same-sex weddings. An upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Pennsylvania case could be decisive in the Kentucky clash; it’s reviewing a refusal by Philadelphia Catholic Social Services to work with same-sex couples as foster parents.

In the Kentucky contract, Sunrise officials are concerned the disputed clause would compel them to violate deeply held religious principles by sponsoring same-sex couples as foster or adoptive parents. Supporters of the provision see it as a crucial safeguard against discrimination.

Child welfare advocates worry that losing Sunrise — which also offers residential treatment programs — would further strain a state system struggling to keep up with demand. Kentucky consistently has some of the nation’s worst child abuse rates.

“You cannot pivot from losing such a large provider of child welfare services … and not anticipate some degree of disruption,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

The state set a June 30 deadline for Sunrise to sign. If it refuses, the state has threatened to stop placing children with the agency. Formerly called Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, Sunrise’s history dates to caring for Civil War orphans. It has contracted with the state for 50-plus years, becoming one of Kentucky’s largest service providers for abused or neglected children.

Sunrise’s supporters say the agency is the target of a political correctness campaign. Critics say allowing exceptions to the LGBTQ-inclusive clause would sanction discrimination.