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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Christian Foster Homes Can Fight ACLU Scrutiny

(CN) - A Christian organization that runs group foster homes in Kentucky can challenge a settlement that allows its religious activities to be monitored by the ACLU, the Sixth Circuit ruled.

A group of Bluegrass State taxpayers sued Sunrise Children's Services and Kentucky in 2000, claiming that the state violated the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause mandating the separation of church and state by paying Sunrise, a Christian organization, to care for foster children.

Sunrise operates several group homes, and places children in foster care. It says its mission is "to extend the grace and hope of our loving God to the young people in our care," court records show. Some of the children placed by Sunrise say the organization pressured them to become Christians.

In 2013, the taxpayers finally settled with the state. While Kentucky denied all wrongdoing, it agreed to require Sunrise and other providers to inform a child and its parents of a foster home's religious affiliation, allow children to go to the church of their choice, and provide non-religious alternatives to religious activities.

Children must also give an exit interview when they leave the provider's care that asks whether they were pressured to convert, according to the Sixth Circuit ruling.

Sunrise is not a party to the settlement, but the agreement nevertheless singles out Sunrise for special monitoring by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The settlement provides that the state will give the nonprofits completed exit surveys for all children in Sunrise's care as well as records of religious activities at Sunrise's group homes. Other providers are not required to hand over this information unless the state launches an investigation, the ruling notes.

Sunrise objected to the settlement, claiming it was entitled to a trial to clear its name. However, a lower court judge dismissed Sunrise's objection, ruling that the settlement was a private agreement. Sunrise appealed.

The Sixth Circuit reversed the lower court Tuesday, finding that the settlement qualifies as a consent decree, not a private agreement, and Sunrise may raise its objection.

"Sunrise, in turn, has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing on its part, and for more than a decade of litigation, including to this day, has a sought a merits adjudication to clear its name," Judge Raymond wrote for the three-judge panel's 2-1 majority. "Meanwhile, over Sunrise's objection, the consent decree singles out Sunrise by name for special monitoring by the ACLU and Americans United; and in doing so, Sunrise argues, the decree subjects Sunrise to unique reputational harm. Thus, the decree denies Sunrise a chance to clear its name - and instead, over Sunrise's objection, imposes the very reputational harm that Sunrise sought to avoid by means of 15 years of litigation."

The 11-page ruling said that a settlement that did not explicitly single out Sunrise for monitoring would "stand on different ground that the decree as it comes to us here."

U.S. District Judge Timothy Black, sitting by designation, dissented, saying the lower court did not abuse its discretion.

"The settlement agreement provided for monitoring by the state and, with respect to Sunrise, by plaintiffs' counsel - not by the state nor by the district court. This is not 'continued judicial policing' indicative of a consent decree," Black wrote. (Emphasis in original.)

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