More than 20 years ago, a former employee of Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children was joined by several concerned citizens in filing suit against the youth residential care facility. Their goal: stop the state from using tax dollars to fund the organization — now known as Sunrise Children’s Services — and protect youth against religious indoctrination and discrimination. 

The American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and international law firm Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer represented the plaintiffs. On Thursday, they announced a settlement with the state.

As part of the settlement, state officials agreed to implement measures that would protect youth against religious proselytization, coercion and discrimination during their placement within tax-funded residential facilities. 

Alex Luchenitser is a lead attorney on the case and associate vice president and legal director for AUSCS.

“The settlement prohibits childcare providers from pressuring children to attend religious ceremonies, services or punishing children for refusing to attend,” Luchenitser said. 

The agreement also requires public health and family services officials to: 

  • Notify youth and their guardians of a facility’s religious affiliation ahead of a placement;
  • Ask whether there are any objections; 
  • Make efforts to accommodate those objections. 

“It requires the state to make reasonable efforts to find alternative placements if the alternative placements exist,” Luchenitser said, adding that there are exceptions. “Situations where the state may not be able to provide an alternative placement might be if there are no slots available or — if based on the particular needs of a child — the state determines that a certain facility is best suited to meet their needs.”

Sunrise Children’s Services has worked with the state since the 1970s, for most of that time under the name Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children. This year the agency initially refused to renew its contract because it included a clause banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In the end, the foster agency signed one without the language proposed by Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration ━ the final contract requires Sunrise Children’s Services to refer LGBTQ applicants to other child care providers.

Kentucky officials also vowed to prohibit the mistreatment of and bias against children for their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Luchenitser said not all provisions outlined in the settlement will immediately go into effect.

“The settlement gives the state some leeway to determine what needs to be codified in regulations and what doesn’t, so we’re still waiting to see how they’re going to apply that,” Luchenitser said. 

The state and plaintiffs reached the settlement agreement in January, at which time the court dismissed the lawsuit. Luchenitser said they held off on announcing it because Sunrise Children’s Services appealed the decision in hopes of keeping the litigation going.

On Wednesday, the U.S. District Court of Western Kentucky dismissed the attempt. He added the case is technically still ongoing because the Baptist foster agency appealed that decision, too.

Clarification: This story was updated to reflect the current, active status of Sunrise Children’s Services’ contract with the state.

Yasmine Jumaa is WFPL’s race and equity reporter.