Negotiations ongoing between Kentucky, state foster care agency

May 15, 2021 | 12:10 am

Updated May 14, 2021 | 10:18 pm

Graphic by Owensboro Times

A renewed contract between Kentucky’s state government and Sunrise Children’s Services — one of the state’s most prominent foster care and adoption agencies — is still in negotiation as the two sides are in an apparent dispute over a provision regarding religious beliefs.

Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration claims the religious beliefs held by Sunrise violate federal law that bars private agencies from discrimination based on sexual orientation. 

According to their website, “Sunrise Children’s Services provides care and hope for hurting families and children through Christ-centered ministries.” Sunrise has offices statewide, including in Owensboro.

Since 1869, Sunrise has continuously affiliated with Kentucky Baptists, which considers homosexuality a sin and opposes same-sex marriage.

Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director Todd Gray released a video last week, pleading with Kentuckians to contact Beshear’s office and protect Sunrise’s beliefs.

“They’re facing an unprecedented challenge right now as they cannot renew their contract with the state of Kentucky because of their deeply held religious beliefs,” Gray said. “In years past, an … accommodation has been given so they could sign the contract, but that has not been the case in 2021. 

Sunrise Children’s Services President Dale Suttles said Thursday that the contract has not been obliterated, and that negotiations between the nonprofit and state administration were continuing to take place. 

“We’ve been in negotiations with the state every single year since the Steve Beshear administration,” Suttles said. “We go back and forth to find an agreement that works for both parties.” 

Suttles refrained from commenting on Gray’s message and whether or not that message was referencing the organization’s religious stances against homosexuality or gender identification. 

“We’ve always been about religious freedom, however you want to break that down,” Suttles said. 

Susan Dunlap, director of the Cabinet for Health and Family Service Office of Public Affairs, said the contract contains provisions required by federal law that “media reports indicate Sunrise cannot or is unwilling to sign.” 

“Federal law cannot be violated and a waiver is required for Sunrise to meet federal law,” she said. 

According to Dunlap, Sunrise has the option to seek a waiver from those requirements. That waiver would have to be granted by the federal government.  

Suttles said there was plenty of reason to believe a contract would be worked out, saying he felt very confident that the two parties would come to an agreement. 

“I’m concerned about the kids,” he said. “It’s tough enough right now, and it’s a tough enough job, without putting some of this into it. We’ve had this agreement for over 40 years with the cabinet.” 

According to the CHFS, a letter from the Kentucky House Majority Caucus says Sunrise should be allowed to substitute an approved subcontractor to provide services. 

“Sunrise has not offered to allow a substitute subcontractor to deliver services and, if they did, the cabinet would evaluate and consider it,” Dunlap said. 

According to Dunlap, children and youth are continuing to be placed in the care of the facility — 71 children have been placed at Sunrise since Jan. 1. 

“They have until June 30, 2021, to sign the letter of agreement,” she said. “CHFS intends to file a pleading with federal court with a correction and updated information on or before May 18. The cabinet is hopeful a positive resolution will be reached by July 1, 2021.”

May 15, 2021 | 12:10 am

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