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Sunrise to fight ruling in 2000 suit

LOUISVILLE - Sunrise Children's Services will challenge a ruling from a federal judge this week that settled a 14-year-old lawsuit over public funding of faith-based organizations, an attorney for the Baptist church-affiliated child care agency said.

U.S. District Judge Charles Simpson on Monday approved a settlement and dismissed the suit, which was filed in 2000 against Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, now known as Sunrise.

Sunrise runs eight residential centers for abused and neglected children around the state. It will appeal Simpson's ruling to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Louisville attorney John Sheller said.

The suit was filed by three citizens and a lesbian staffer who claimed religious discrimination in her firing from her job with Kentucky Baptist Homes. The worker's claim against the child care agency was dismissed in 2009, but a challenge over public funding of religious groups was allowed to proceed.

The order on Monday ended the federal district court case, said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director with Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The nonprofit advocacy group along with the American Civil Liberties Union argued the case for the fired worker, Alicia Pedreira.

Sheller said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week on the religious rights of "closely held" corporations like Hobby Lobby could provide guidance in Sunrise's case.

"The (district) court apparently didn't bother to consider the implications of that case," Sheller said of the Supreme Court ruling, which sided with Hobby Lobby and another company that refused to pay for certain contraceptives for religious reasons.

"Sunrise has the right to engage in a mission of serving children as a way of serving God," Sheller said. "The district judge, all he had to do was wait a day or two to see what that decision held. Instead it looks like he almost went out of his way to jump the gun."

Luchenitser said Sunrise doesn't have "much of a substantive objection" to the settlement approved by the court, since it was between the plaintiffs and the state of Kentucky.

"I don't think such an appeal would get anywhere," he said.

Under the settlement reached in March 2013, child-care agencies that contract with the state are forbidden from pressuring children to participate in religious worship or instruction.

The settlement includes provisions that allow for monitoring of state contractors, to ensure the state is complying with the agreement, Luchenitser said.

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