Judge OKs lesbian firing by Baptist group

Judge OKs lesbian firing by Baptist group

SUMMARY: A federal judge has dismissed charges of religious discrimination in a case many believe is a bellwether for George W. Bush’s « faith-based » social service agenda.

A federal judge has dismissed charges of religious discrimination in a case many believe is a bellwether for George W. Bush’s « faith-based » social service agenda.

In a memorandum decision issued July 23, U.S. District Judge Charles Simpson III threw out claims filed by the American Civil Liberties Union last year on behalf of a lesbian, Alicia Pedreira, hired as a social worker in early 1998 by Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children (KBHC), which receives more than half its annual funding from the federal government.

« Alicia Pedreira is being terminated on October 23, 1998, from Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children because her admitted homosexual lifestyle is contrary to Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children core values, » said the termination statement issued to Pedreira after a photo of her with her partner was displayed at the Kentucky State Fair. Pedreira maintains she was open about her sexual orientation in the hiring process.

The judge said Pedreira’s firing did not demonstrate religious discrimination. « While Baptist Homes seeks to employ only persons who adhere to a behavioral code consistent with its religious mission, the absence of religious requirements leaves their focus on behavior, not religion, » Simpson wrote. « The civil rights statutes protect religious freedom, not personal lifestyle choices. »

« We base our whole ministry and services on traditional family values, » Bill Smithwick, president and chief operating officer of KBHC, told the Boston Globe, « and we are uncompromising that we are going to be who we are and have been since 1869. » Smithwick said he was « pleased » with the ruling’s confirmation that sexual orientation is not protected by federal law.

« There can be no question that if the Bush initiative is passed, the result will be government-funded discrimination, » said Christopher E. Anders, legislative counsel for the ACLU. « The court has confirmed our worst fears, and said that under current law, religious organizations may discriminate even if they are using tax dollars to do so. »

Bush’s faith-based social service plan — The Community Solutions Act of 2001 — passed the House of Representatives last week in spite of a delay over an alleged quid pro quo agreement between the administration and the Salvation Army. The deal, revealed in an internal Salvation Army document, would have traded lobbying support of Bush’s plan by the charity for a regulatory change allowing the Army and other religious non-profits exclusion from state and local laws banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in hiring.

« Those who found the Salvation Army’s requests disturbing should be horrified at today’s decision in Louisville, » said Anders. « This ruling brings home to everyone that discrimination with government dollars doesn’t begin and end with the Salvation Army, » he said. « This goes on all over the place. »

Simpson did not dismiss broader charges of unconstitutional mingling of church and state, however. « [The plaintiffs] identify specific activities such as attendance at Baptist religious services, informal religious training, and inculcation of Baptist Christian values as evidencing the advancement of religion as a primary force in the KBHC program, » wrote the judge.

The ACLU is weighing its options for appeal of Simpson’s decision. They could proceed immediately to trial on the remaining constitutional claims and abandon the dismissed employment discrimination claims; attempt appeal of the dismissed claims while moving ahead with a trial on the surviving claims; or appeal the dismissed claims immediately and wait for that decision before taking everything to trial.

Appeals would go first to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, then to the U.S. Supreme Court .