The First Amendment of the Constitution states briefly, "Congress
shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting
the free exercise thereof." That ideal has also been enshrined
in our civil rights laws which, among other things, forbid discrimination
on the basis of religion. This poses a bit of a riddle for President
Bush and others who would use public money to fund religious programs.
Their idea is to expand Charitable Choice, which would allow churches
and other religious organizations to compete for federal dollars.
Amy Sherman, a Senior Fellow with the Hudson Institute's Welfare
Policy Center, who favors this proposal, says Charitable Choice
allows religious programs to apply for government dollars without
compromising their religious character.
She says it comes down to simple tolerance:
For example, Charitable Choice allows religious organizations
to maintain a religious atmosphere in their facilities so they
don't have to take down a cross or a picture of Jesus from their
homeless shelter just because they got federal dollars to underwrite
some of their activities among the homeless.
Opponents say this is a bad idea, even a dangerous one that can
promote intolerance. They say the case of Alicia Pedreira versus
Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children shows what happens when church
and state collide.
Alicia Pedreira lives in a working class neighborhood of one
story wood framed houses in Louisville. She has high cheekbones,
and a compact, muscular body, sculpted by weight lifting and karate.
In fact she's a brown-belt and calls herself a fighter. In 1998
she was interviewed for a job at the Kentucky Baptist Home for
Children, which has provided counseling and foster care for children
since just after the Civil War. Her first interview went well,
but Pedreira is a lesbian, and she wondered if she really belonged
in a conservative Southern Baptist organization.
Pedreira said that in her second interview, she told her prospective
employers she was a lesbian."I said if that was a problem,
don't hire me, I have a job. I even said I don't want to be fired
six months from now." Pedreira says she was told to be discreet.
"I'm a therapist, I don't usually talk about my private life.
I thought, okay, I can work here."
It was, in effect, a "don't ask-don't tell" policy.
Kentucky Baptist hired Pedreira to counsel troubled teenage boys,
and for six months all went well.
She flips through a large, red notebook, full of documents that
chronicle her experience, including her first evaluation - where
she received excellent feedback from her supervisor.
The red notebook also contains a copy of a picture that changed
her life. A photographer snapped the photo of Pedreira and her
partner after an AIDS walk in 1998. In the picture, the two women
lean against each other affectionately. Pedreira wears a tee shirt
with a map of the "Isle of Lesbos."
The trouble began when the photographer entered the photo in
a contest at the Kentucky State Fair, and thousands of people
saw it, including her co-workers.
She said she didn't think anything of it until someone at work
mentioned the shirt she was wearing. Pedreira says, "At that
point I went, oh no, and at that moment I pretty much thought
that I was going to be fired."
She was right. A week later the President of Kentucky Baptist
Homes asked her to resign. A letter explained that her "homosexual
lifestyle is contrary to the Home's core values."
Pedreira sued, along with the American Civil Liberties Union,
alleging religious discrimination. Under federal law, religious
organizations can discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion,
but not if they accept government money. Kentucky Baptist Homes
receives more than half of its funds from the state, so Pedreira
and her advocates say this is an open and shut case.
Matt Coles, a lawyer with the Lesbian-Gay Rights Project of the
American Civil Liberties Union says if you want government funding
as a religious organization to provide social services, you can't
proselytize while you do it. He says the Pedreira case underscores
why Charitable Choice is a bad idea:
It's about as stark an example of it as you can possibly find.
One of the reasons that we brought this case was because to us
it seemed that this was a preview. This is what happens when you
let a religious organization provide social services and you don't
put restrictions on it.
Officials at Kentucky Baptist Homes declined several requests for
interviews. However, its website says Pedreira was dismissed not
on religious grounds, but on therapeutic ones. In public statements
since firing Pedreira, Kentucky Baptist Homes President Bill Smithwick
has said that he's against "promoting homosexual behavior."
"Such behavior could result in emotional and life-threatening
physical consequences. We don't think we need to be promoting it
by saying, 'Yes, Alicia is an employee of ours, and she's a homosexual--
that must be okay
' We're not saying that that's okay, that's
That's a good position for Smithwick to take because there's
no federal law that bans discrimination against homosexuals, and
there is no such statute in Kentucky. This case could set an important
precedent. Proponents of Charitable Choice say that allowing faith-based
groups to hire in a manner consistent with their beliefs, in short,
to do what Kentucky Baptist Homes did, is essential and even fair.
They point to other ideological organizations. For example, environmental
groups wouldn't hire anti-environmentalists. They contend that
faith based groups should likewise be free to hire people whose
views are consistent with theirs.
This case has divided Kentucky Baptists. Paul Simmons, a liberal
Baptist minister, joined the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff. He says
in firing Pedreira, Kentucky Baptist Homes used public funds to
push a narrow religious-based social agenda.
Simmons also finds it objectionable that President Bush has set
up a White House office to fund faith-based initiatives:
The very fact that there is an office in the West Wing of
the White House that deals with government initiatives towards
faith-based groups is an open assault on the first amendment.
This man took an oath to uphold the Constitution, he either does
not understand it, or else he is cynical about that oath.
Not surprisingly conservative Baptists have a different view,
such as Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological
In so far as the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children
are legitimately Baptist and reflect accountability to Baptist
churches, the Homes had no choice but to take the action. There
can be no doubt that Baptist conviction understands that homosexuality
is biblically defined as sinful and as certainly a lifestyle that
one would not present to children, especially in the context of
a children's home.
Interestingly, some conservative theologians, including Mohler
and such prominent Evangelicals as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson,
agree with liberals about some of the dangers of commingling church
and state. Mohler says when churches take government money, they
become agents of the secular state, which could dilute their religious
message. He believes the government might also insist on auditing
their books, or compel them to hire gays.
The best way for Caesar to co-opt the church would
be to franchise it, and I'm afraid that this is in a subtle way
what is happening. No I do not believe that that is the ambition
of the Bush administration. As a matter of fact, I applaud the
Bush administration's understanding that Christian churches and
other institutions are probably reaching more persons... than
any governmental structure or secular alternative.
But I'm concerned as to what will be the inevitable results when
all of this lands in the court
I do not believe that there
are enough courthouses in America to handle all of the cases,
charges, complaints and challenges that will come.