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Gay hiring fears hurt Baptist agency fundraising

Posted: March 6, 2014 - 6:31pm

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Uncertainty over a short-lived proposal to open employment to gays at Kentucky’s largest private child care agency prompted many of its supportive churches to withhold giving last year, causing a multi-million dollar shortfall.

Sunrise Children’s Services depends on giving from Baptist congregations in Kentucky, along with government funding. But Kentucky Baptist Convention executive director Paul Chitwood said those offerings dried up last year because donors were concerned that the proposal to allow gay workers might succeed.

The Sunrise board ultimately rejected the proposal introduced by Bill Smithwick, then CEO of Sunrise. But the flap left the agency that cares daily for about 600 children with a funding shortfall of about $7.5 million.

“Most of our churches decided not to take the annual offering for Sunrise because they feared that Smithwick was going to lead Sunrise away from” the Kentucky Baptist Convention, Chitwood said. The state convention, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and has about 2,400 member churches in Kentucky, is conservative on social issues and opposes gay marriage.

Chitwood and church leaders are hoping congregations statewide will be able to raise about $5 million during a drive in May to make up for the funding gap.

“Now we’re going back and asking them to make that up,” he said.

Sunrise Children’s Services, formerly known as Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, has an annual $27 million budget and operates eight residential treatment centers around the state. The agency shelters abused and neglected children, and also offers psychiatric services. Its board is approved by the state Baptist convention and it has a covenant agreement that stipulates the agency “shall maintain its distinctive Baptist character.”

Smithwick was in his 16th year at the helm of Sunrise when he floated the proposal to open employment to gays. He had said he feared the agency’s ban would eventually lead to a loss of millions in government funding, meaning the agency would have to drastically scale back its budget, since most of its funding — Smithwick said 85 percent of about $27 million — comes from government sources.

The board ultimately rejected the proposal. But Sunrise board member Stan Spees said at the time that the proposal divided the board more than any issue raised during his six years at the agency. Smithwick resigned in December.

“I see clearly what (Smithwick) was thinking, however I would humbly disagree with him on that because it matters about the scriptures and it matters about the gospel,” said Ron Shaw, pastor of Community Baptist Church in Somerset. Shaw spoke in favor of taking a no confidence in Smithwick’s leadership vote at the state convention in November. It overwhelmingly passed.

But religious organizations operating with government funding or contracts could be held to new standards as gay rights protections advance through the courts and state legislatures, said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group.

“We’re also I hope going to see the federal government being more concerned about giving federal grants and contracts to entities, religious or otherwise, that in fact have a discriminatory policy toward gay and lesbian Americans,” Lynn said.

Lynn said there are similar cases of religious objection to government mandates developing around the country, including a case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court later this month. In it, the retail chain Hobby Lobby argues that it shouldn’t have to comply with the Affordable Care Act mandate that employers include insurance coverage for contraceptives. The chain’s owner has said he opposes the policy for religious reasons.

Shaw and other Baptist church leaders in Kentucky say they are not willing to begin hiring gays at Sunrise just to preserve federal and state dollars.

“We’ve known all along that our convictions would cost us; there’s nothing new about that,” said the Rev. Hershael York, who leads Buck Run Baptist Church in the state’s capital city of Frankfort. “If the price of that means that we do less because others will not come along beside us, well then fine, we’ll just have to do less.”

Chitwood said he isn’t worried about the agency losing government funding “in the near future.” But York said he believes that could happen as soon as two years from now, signaled by the recent rulings around the country on gay marriage.

“The government has partnered with us, because frankly, we’re the largest provider of services to these at-risk children, and when we’re gone I don’t know who they’re going to get to fill that hole,” York said.

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