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Georgia children's home settles lawsuit; questions remain

11/17/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

By Alice M. Smith*

ATLANTA (UMNS) - The United Methodist Children's Home has settled a lawsuit in which it had been charged with discrimination and violating the state constitution by denying non-Christians the right to work at the home.

The home, operated by the denomination's North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference, settled its lawsuit out of court Oct. 30, about three weeks after the Georgia Department of Human Resources settled its lawsuit with the same plaintiffs Oct. 9.

The home's directors have not decided whether to continue accepting children from the state. However, if it continues its relationship with the state, the home will no longer base hiring decisions on an applicant's religious background except in limited cases that are spelled out in the settlement.

The settlement with Aimee Bellmore, a former employee at the home who claims she was fired because she is a lesbian, and Alan Yorker, a therapist who says he was denied employment at the home because he is Jewish, includes an undisclosed amount of money.

However, the Rev. Richard Puckett, director of development for the Atlanta children's home, says the amount of the settlement is much less than the legal fees would have cost if the lawsuit had continued, and the money paid to the plaintiffs is not coming out of the home's funds.

"If we choose to continue to take state children, we cannot discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion, except with respect to the hiring or appointment of any positions serving a primarily spiritual, ministerial or religious purpose," wrote Beverly O. Cochran Jr., administrator, and Puckett in a letter to North Georgia pastors.

The final decision on whether the home will continue taking state children will be made by the home's board of directors after the state has issued its new regulations and contracts, which could take up to 12 months, Puckett said.

Nevertheless, Cochran said no matter what the state regulations and the home's response, the agency will continue to care for children who have been neglected or abused.

"We've been serving kids and families since 1871, helping to ease their pains that basically have resulted from inadequate family relationships and abuse," he said. "We simply are going to continue to do this into the long-term future. We are going to continue to maintain a strong spiritual presence on campus, and we're going to do this by employing the best people we can."

Although the home's current policy excludes the hiring of non-Christians, a board decision in the spring of 2002 - before the lawsuit was filed in July 2002 - allows the hiring of gays and lesbians. However, they must be celibate and must sign the same agreement that all employees must sign on the matter of sexuality. The policy quotes from Paragraph 161 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline and states that individuals should not engage in a sexual relationship outside of marriage. The home's policy also prohibits sexual harassment and sexual contact between staff and the children, and it concludes, "Violations of the above mentioned shall be grounds for immediate termination from employment."

The state did not consult with the children's home in its settlement of the lawsuit, and was willing to settle largely because of the Blaine amendment to Georgia's constitution, according to Puckett and Cochran's letter.

"The Blaine amendment was enacted in Georgia and 36 other states in the 19th century as an anti-Catholic law designed to keep state funds from going to Catholic parochial schools," Cochran and Puckett wrote. "Arguably, the amendment also applies more broadly to any church-related agency or program--children's homes, schools, hospitals, urban programs and more.

"For many years, the state has construed the Blaine amendment narrowly and has continued to contract with faith-based programs such as the United Methodist Children's Home. However, this lawsuit brought the issue to prominence and resulted in a settlement that preserves the state's right to contract with faith-based service providers."

In addition to not being able to restrict hiring to Christians, the home must also consider a state restriction that would prohibit the administration from requiring children in its care to attend services on Sunday morning. Currently, the home takes children who are Christian, or who do not claim any religion, to United Methodist churches on Sunday. Children of other religions are allowed to worship with their own faith communities.

If the homes remain under the control of the state, children would still be taken to church if they choose, but they would not be required to attend. Yet, the home is confident it can design a religious program that would be so attractive the youth at the home would want to participate, officials said. Furthermore, the spiritual life on campus would continue to be specifically Christian and would be overseen by an ordained minister.

Currently, about 160 youth are in the home's residential programs, with more than 90 percent placed there by the state. State contracts account for 57 percent of the home's operating budget. The state pays a per-diem amount for every child in its custody who is placed at the home.

If the home should decide not to continue accepting children from the state, it would lose state revenue, but the more important issue is what would happen to the children - those who have been abused or neglected to such an extent the state has taken over their care.

"The problem is not the money," Puckett said. "Even if the churches were able to pick up the difference in money, it's the children we wouldn't get from the state. The great majority of children in crisis come through the state system. That's what we would lose if we did not do business with the state."

In such a situation, some children might remain in dangerous home situations, or they could be forced out on the streets, or placed with secular agencies with no religious life at all.

The decision whether to abide by the state's new policy is one that all religious agencies that receive state funding will have to make.

Cochran said about 1,300 to 1,500 children live in religious-affiliated residential programs across Georgia.

In the meantime, settlement of the lawsuit will "let us get back to focusing on ministry to children and their families in a way that we had previously," Puckett said. "The lawsuit has detracted from our ability to move forward in several ways."

The home's staff and others will watch closely efforts by Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to add a clause to the Blaine amendment that would bring Georgia into line with federal government policies that do permit religious agencies to hire only people of their own faith.

The proposed amendment, however, faces some big hurdles, including passage by two-thirds of both houses of the Georgia General Assembly and approval by voters in a statewide referendum.

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*Smith is editor of the Wesleyan Christian Advocate, the newspaper of the North and South Georgia annual conferences.

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