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Religious, State-Funded Children's Home Gets One More Day in Court

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on October 08, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A religious child-care provider, whose biggest client was the state of Kentucky, will be able to continue a longstanding lawsuit a bit longer, thanks to a Sixth Circuit ruling on Monday. Sunrise Children's Services provides group housing, foster care placement and other services to Kentucky children in state custody. Those services come with a heavy dose of religious coercion, according to critics.

Those critics sued 15 years ago, alleging that the state was violating the Establishment Clause by contracting with Sunrise. After 13 years of fruitless litigation, the state and its critics finally entered into a settlement -- but only over Sunrises' objections. Now, Sunrise is entitled to make those objections heard in court, the Sixth Circuit ruled.

Sunrise's Social -- and Religious -- Services

Sunrise's mission is "to extend the grace and hope of our loving God to the young people in our care by meeting their physical, emotional and spiritual needs." The problem, of course, is that plenty of children in state custody aren't looking for salvation alongside their tax-funded social services. The group, originally founded as the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, has promoted its success at converting children in its care and referred to foster parents as "in-home missionaries," according to critics. Several former Sunrise kids have claimed that the organization pressured them into religious practice.

Fifteen years ago, Kentucky taxpayers, including a former Sunrise therapist, sued the state, arguing that its contracts with Sunrise violated the Establishment Clause. Paying a group that paired proselytizing and providing social services (65 percent of Sunrise's revenue comes from the state of Kentucky), the state was unconstitutionally breaching the wall between church and state, they argued.

A Long Dispute and It's Not Over Yet

The case dragged on and on and on. By 2013, the plaintiffs and the state entered into a settlement that was to end the conflict. Kentucky agreed to reform its funding for child-care agencies, forbidding religious discrimination and religious pressure tactics. The ACLU was to monitor the program.

Sunrise was not pleased. After 13 years, the group argued, it deserved the chance to vindicate itself in court. The district court disagreed, dismissing the suit and declaring that the dismissal order was not a consent decree and that Sunrise could not object to its entry.

Sunrise, as one does in such situations, turned to a higher power. On appeal, it convinced the Sixth Circuit that the court's dismissal of the case was in fact a consent decree, i.e. a settlement with continued judicial oversight. Here, the court's dismissal order had all the markings of a consent decree: the court incorporated the settlement into its order and retained jurisdiction over the matter to enforce compliance with the settlement's terms.

As such, the court was required to determine that the decree was fair and allow Sunrise to argue against it. That's not exactly the full decision on the merits Sunrise was seeking, but it does give the group one more day in court.

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