Republican leaders in the Kentucky House are calling on Gov. Andy Beshear to reconsider the state’s contract deadlock with Sunrise Services for Children, citing a provision added to state law this year they say protects the Baptist agency’s “religious rights.”
The provision says no contract for children’s services “shall interfere with the contractor’s freedom of religion.” It also requires the state to allow the contractor to hire a subcontractor to deliver any services it can’t provide because of “religiously held beliefs.”
“The language is unequivocally clear and ensures that the state cannot discriminate against a provider because of that organization’s religious convictions,” said the May 12 letter from House Speaker David Osborne and four other Republican leaders. It also was signed by 67 House Republicans.
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The language was added during a conference committee hashing out final details of the 196-page state budget bill approved in March. It does not identify a particular contractor but would have been added amid the ongoing contract dispute between the state and Sunrise, one of the largest providers of care for children removed from homes because of abuse or neglect.
Beshear, a Democrat, vetoed the measure, saying it conflicts with federal and state law and would “permit the discrimination and persecution of children who are in need of out-of-home care because of their disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or many other conditions at a most critical time.”
But the veto, along with a number of items Beshear vetoed in House Bill 192, the state budget, was easily overridden by Republican legislators who hold super-majorities in both the House and Senate.
House Democratic leader Joni Jenkins said the dispute between the state and Sunrise began well before the new wording was added to state law.
“It is important to note that this issue began before the passage of House Bill 192, and we understand there is serious concern about compliance with federal law,” Jenkins said. “Our ultimate goal is to make sure these children are in a safe and loving environment. We do not believe a person’s sexuality has any bearing whatsoever when it comes to providing that care.”
A statement from the Cabinet for Health and Family services, which administers the contract, said the contract offered to Sunrise “contains provisions required by federal law.”
“Sunrise has not responded and the contract is still pending,” it said. It also said Sunrise has not offered to use a subcontractor to deliver services.
“If they did the cabinet would evaluate and consider it,” the statement said.
The letter from House Republicans comes as the Beshear administration and Sunrise remain at an impasse over a contract provision that bans discrimination because of sexual orientation.
Sunrise is an affiliate of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, which views homosexuality as a sin and does not recognize same-sex marriage.
Sunrise, which provides care for about 1,000 children a year who have experienced abuse or neglect, has been operating without a contract since July 2020, when the previous one expired.
It refused to sign a new one after the Beshear administration declined to waive the provision involving discrimination because of sexual orientation.
Todd Gray, the Baptist convention’s executive director, said this month that the dispute comes down to a conflict over one sentence in the contract the state has refused to waive. He declined to elaborate other than to say it involves “a deeply held religious conviction.”
Beshear said at his news conference Monday that the dispute is over the clause barring discrimination because of sexual orientation. Beshear said the state cannot waive that requirement because it is required by federal law as well as a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian and transgender employees from discrimination.
Meanwhile, about 600 children remain in the care of Sunrise.
In a pending federal lawsuit, the cabinet said it had stopped placing children with Sunrise earlier this year but in a statement Thursday said that was incorrect and that 71 children have been placed with Sunrise since Jan. 1.
The cabinet has notified Sunrise it will cease placing children with the agency July 1 if a new contract with the state is not signed.
In their letter, the Republican lawmakers defended Sunrise’s decades of work as a state contractor, calling it a “proven partner in our state’s efforts to improve the quality of life for Kentucky children,” adding that to “end this relationship risks the well-being of thousands of children and adults who would benefit directly from quality care.”
Sunrise’s services include foster care, adoption and residential treatment for children.
But its work has been marked with controversy involving LGBTQ issues, dating to 2000 when a child therapist filed a federal lawsuit alleging she lost her job because Sunrise learned she was a lesbian.
In 2008 two gay men protested after Sunrise refused to accept them as foster parents, saying it only accepts married couples.
And in 2013 a former Sunrise president lost his job after he recommended the agency consider hiring gay and lesbian employees, which the Sunrise board rejected. He left after a no-confidence vote in his leadership by the Baptist convention board.
A lawyer for Sunrise told Kentucky Today, an online publication of the Baptist convention, that the agency refers same-sex couples seeking to become foster-adoptive parents to other agencies and does the same for LGBTQ applicants for jobs.
Meanwhile, the dispute continues to play out in a federal lawsuit that grew out of the 2000 claim filed by Alicia Pedreira, the worker who claimed she was wrongfully fired by Sunrise.
The Beshear administration has proposed settling the case through new regulations meant to ban discrimination against children in foster care because of sexual orientation or gender identity. The regulations also would ban religious indoctrination.
Sunrise objects to the proposed settlement and has asked the judge to rule in its favor.