Alicia Pedreira and her partner

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WOMENSENEWS)–A federal court judge here has upheld the firing of a lesbian–solely because she is a lesbian–by the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, saying the termination of the art therapist and boys residence supervisor did not constitute religious discrimination.

In a June 24 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Simpson wrote that even if Alicia Pedreira was right that the Baptist religious tenets against homosexuality were unfairly used against her, the institution was not prevented from doing so, as a matter of law.

Judge Simpson wrote that Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children “leaves the religious freedoms of employees and potential employees unfettered. … The civil rights statutes protect religious freedom, not personal lifestyle choices.”

Simpson also ruled, however, that the lawsuit may continue on the issue of whether the firing violated the separation of church and state. The suit claims that the state of Kentucky is violating the U.S. Constitution by providing state funding to a religious institution that openly practices discrimination.

Former teen counselor Pedreira was unavailable for comment.

Indicating the significance of the issues raised by her firing, Pedreira is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“The ruling in Kentucky is incredibly disappointing and also points out what’s wrong with President Bush’s faith-based initiative,” said David Elliot, spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “The fact is, when tax dollars go to religious, or even non-religious, agencies that practice discrimination on a day-to-day basis, what happens is, we are being asked to fund our own oppression.

“If Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children wants to discriminate, it should be allowed to do so, but not with tax dollars,” Elliott added.

Neither Federal nor State Laws Bar Anti-Gay Discrimination

As neither Kentucky nor federal law protects gays and lesbians from employment discrimination, Pedreira’s lawsuit took the tack of charging Kentucky Baptist Homes with religious discrimination because it used religious tenets as the basis for firing her.

Under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, religious organizations are exempt from anti-discrimination laws as long as workplace discrimination is strictly based on religion. But in 1996, Congress expanded the exemptions under so-called charitable choice laws, allowing religious organizations to discriminate while accepting public funds for welfare-to-work and drug treatment programs.

The ruling comes during the heated debate over President George W. Bush’s proposal to increase federal funding for faith-based charities that carry out social services. Critics say the government would be subsidizing groups that discriminate against lesbians and gay men, people of other religions, unwed mothers, unmarried persons living as couples and others.

Pedreira was hired in March 1998 to work at the Spring Meadows Children’s Home in the publicly funded position of “family specialist.” She supervised troubled youth in a transitional living cottage and worked in art therapy.

During her job interview, Pedreira informed the institute’s clinical director Jack Cox that she was a lesbian and was told that sexual orientation wouldn’t be a problem as long as she didn’t talk about her personal life at work, according to the complaint in the lawsuit.

By all accounts, Pedreira complied with the Baptists’ tacit “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and received positive performance ratings for her work with troubled children, the complaint said.

She was axed in October, two months after an amateur photographer exhibited at a state fair a picture of her and her partner. She was asked to resign but refused. Seven others, including the parents of one of the youths she supervised, joined as plaintiffs in the suit.

The ACLU is considering whether to appeal the dismissed portion of the case and whether to proceed to trial with the remaining claim that the publicly funded charity has violated the separation of church and state.

Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children is a private institution, under the auspices of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, which operates foster homes, children’s residential homes and youth ranches for abused, neglected and troubled children. Since 1978 the state has maintained a contract with the charity, the dollar amount varying with the number of children placed with the charity. State money usually represents at least half of the budget, and Kentucky paid the institution $12 million in 1998, the year Pedreira was fired.

State Warned Charity That Bias Was Jeopardizing Its Contract

After Pedreira was fired, Viola Miller, director of the state’s department for families and children, suggested that the state might stop sending children to the charity’s residences, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.

The charity’s executive director, Bill Smithwick, balked at the state pressure to change its employment policies, telling the Louisville Courier-Journal, “We are not going to acquiesce to political pressure.”

Southwick decided not to renew the institution’s contract with the state. Gov. Paul Patton intervened, however, urging Southwick to reconsider.

When questioned by the newspaper, Patton declined to comment on whether the charity’s employment policy toward gays was discriminatory. Patton said, “We’re not passing judgment on that. We’re not even discussing that subject. We don’t normally propose hiring practices or employee policies. … We don’t do that with highway contractors. We don’t do it with building constructors. And we don’t do it with service providers. So that’s not, and has never been, an issue with the state.”

Based on Patton’s assurances that the state would not interfere in the charity’s hiring or firing practices, Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children signed a new contract, which currently is in effect. However, some individual social workers across the state have stopped assigning cases to the charity and the University of Louisville and Spalding University no longer assign students to the charity for internships.

Janet L. Boyd is a writer and columnist in Louisville, Ky.