Baptist Homes accused of forcing religion on residents

The Courier-Journal, Kentucky/May 2, 2007
By Peter Smith

Louisville, Kentucky -- A state-funded Baptist social-services program forced children into Christian or specifically Baptist practices and discouraged the practicing of other religions, according to interviews released as part of a lawsuit.

The interviews were done as part of a suit filed by a fired employee and four other taxpayers who are challenging state funding for Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children.

Several of the complaints came from children who said they were Catholics, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses or atheists.

"They tried to more (or) less force me to become a Christian," said a child who had stayed at the Baptist Youth Ranch in Elizabethtown. "I just felt I was being pressured into giving up my religion."

The children were not identified in court records, leaving the number of kids making the claims unclear. The statements were made in one-on-one exit interviews on more than 50 dates between 2001 and 2005 with children who spent time in eight group homes.

The interviews were conducted by consultants for the state who were reviewing Baptist Homes and other contractors' programs. Most of those interviewed were 12 or older.

Both the state and Baptist Homes, now known as Sunrise Children's Services, say the agency has a strict policy against religious coercion or proselytizing and does not prevent children from practicing their faith.

John Sheller, the attorney for the group homes, said after Baptist Homes learned of the statements through the lawsuits, the agency did "reiterate to the whole staff (to) remember our policy - no coercion, no proselytizing."

The state has paid Baptist Homes about $61 million to take care of children whom courts place in state custody, usually because they are juvenile offenders or are abused or neglected.

Attorney Jonathan Goldberg, representing the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said the state considers Baptist Homes an "excellent, quality provider."

"If a child says, 'I don't want to go to the Baptist church,' then the child does not go," Goldberg said.

The reports were filed by the plaintiffs, who are seeking to get the names and testimony of anyone interviewed if they have turned 18. The state and the Baptist agency argue that clients' names need to be kept confidential.

The reports include comments from children who said that they were forced to participate in Bible readings, prayer times or Baptist services or that they weren't allowed to practice their own faith.

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