HARDIN, Ky. – A letter-writing campaign and petition drive calls for trustees to oppose changes in Sunrise Children’s Services’ hiring practices to allow employment of known homosexuals.
The West Kentucky Fellowship of Directors of Missions (DOMs), in urging fellow DOMs across the state to “take a stand,” states: “This is not a battle against homosexuals, but a stand against this sin becoming so culturally acceptable that we evade calling it sin.”
Bill Smithwick, president of Kentucky Baptist-affiliated Sunrise Children’s Services, has informed pastors by letter that its board of directors has discussed the possibility of altering the ministry’s anti-discrimination policy. A board meeting is scheduled for Nov. 8 after an Aug. 16 meeting in which the proposal was tabled.
The West Kentucky directors of missions, in the letter composed by Rodney Cude of the Ohio River Baptist Association, encourage DOMs to contact the members of Sunrise’s board to encourage them to stand for the principles of scripture and the biblical values under which Sunrise was formed. The West Kentucky DOMs, from 12 Baptist associations, also request other DOMs to pass on an accompanying “Petition of Moral Concern” to the churches in their associations.
“One is called to question how Sunrise, which has been fighting a legal battle concerning their current hiring procedure that forbids the paying of same-sex benefits, and hiring a person who is knowingly homosexual, that spent thousands of dollars (which includes special gifts from [Kentucky Baptist Convention] churches to aid in that fight) even allowed this issue,” the DOMs’ letter states. “How has such an issue, based on abandoning biblical principles, been allowed to find a foothold in a KBC partner agency?”
The letter affirms, “Our hearts should be moved to assist those in this lifestyle because it carries immediate and eternal consequences.” But it also urges, “… let us hold our ground for the children entrusted to our ministry at Sunrise by not exposing them to this lifestyle through employees, their spouses, or in the future perhaps foster parents.”
A PowerPoint presentation that accompanied the trustee minutes from the Aug. 16 meeting presented Sunrise trustees with three options: a) change the employment practice; b) become a single-site religious home for privately placed kids; or c) close.
The “increasing, perpetual push for the normalization of homosexuality, including marriage,” means that Sunrise’s “primary funding source and hiring practices are on a collision course,” the PowerPoint – which trustee sources have confirmed was presented by Smithwick – states, “Sunrise will comply or close.” Asserting that Sunrise cannot meet the needs of today’s abused and neglected children without public assistance, the presentation maintains that, even if hiring practices include homosexuals, Sunrise can “continue to integrate our Christian principles of grace, unconditional love, and hope throughout our programs to the children we serve and our staff.”
Kentucky Baptist churches contribute about $1 million annually, or approximately 5 percent of the agency’s budget. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, about 85 percent of its funding comes from the state, with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services being a main contractor.
The Aug. 16 meeting of Sunrise’s board prompted one trustee, Rick Fyffe of Ashland, to resign in protest and another, Stan Spees of Paducah, to express his concerns to Kentucky Baptist Convention leaders.
In its “Petition of Moral Concern,” the West Kentucky Fellowship of DOMs implores Sunrise trustees: “We believe this is against our stand as Southern and Kentucky Baptist[s] regarding this lifestyle choice and will be detrimental to the best care of the children you serve.” KBC Executive Director Paul Chitwood also has denounced Sunrise’s proposed change in its hiring practices: “If the trustees decide to follow Smithwick and surrender biblical values to maintain government funding, then clearly they will have forsaken the Baptist character of Sunrise and become the equivalent of any secular corporation that contracts with the state to provide childcare.”
Smithwick, in a letter sent in late October to Kentucky Baptist pastors, wrote, “The issue for the Sunrise Children’s Services Board has not been and is not about homosexuality. The core question is not about separation of church and state or government money. The question is, ‘What is the greater good?’ Do we walk away from the pain, suffering, loneliness and brokenness of the kids we serve over our hiring practice or continue ministering to young children who desperately need someone to show them God’s love?”
Smithwick drew a comparison with the Pharisees confronting Jesus: “What did Jesus do that was so sinful? He helped and healed those who could not help themselves on the Sabbath much to the chagrin of the righteous Pharisees. He put people over dogma, grace over law, and healing over doctrinal purity. Such is the principle we face at Sunrise – which is the greater good – save the kids or keep our hiring practices and close.”
Business for Sunrise will continue as usual, Smithwick wrote. “We will continue to meet the children’s spiritual, emotional and physical needs in the same way we do today.” He noted that Sunrise will “stringently enforce boundary policies prohibiting all staff from sharing personal information, especially personal sexual information whether heterosexual or homosexual, with the kids.”
Smithwick offered a hypothetical illustration: “Suppose my wife and I are appointed as missionaries to a Muslim country to start a church, but to stay in the country she has to cover her head, which is an acknowledgement of Islam and Allah. Which is the greater good, stay, keep her head covered in public and start the church – or leave?” Identifying the distinguishing feature of Southern Baptists as traditionally being a focus on missions, he said, “Sunrise is as focused on missions as any other KBC institution or agency. Changing our hiring practices makes us no less distinctively Baptist.”
Chitwood reported on his blog Oct. 23 that he and the convention’s president, Dan Summerlin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Lone Oak, requested a meeting with Smithwick to discuss the possible change in the hiring practice, but Smithwick responded that such a meeting was premature because the Sunrise board had yet to make a decision.
Describing the line of reasoning in Smithwick’s letter to pastors as “an end justifies-the-means approach,” Chitwood asked, “Why could not this line of reasoning justify Sunrise hiring an adulterous, homosexual, or Muslim president for the organization?” With regard to Smithwick’s example of contextualization in missions, Chitwood countered, “Indeed, a female Christian missionary in the Muslim world might wear a jihab, but we don’t hire Muslims to be Christian missionaries!
Chitwood noted that in addition to what it would mean for the kids, another tragedy of Smithwick’s recommendation “is that it ignores the investment of untold tens of millions of Baptist dollars and surrenders the very reason Sunrise came into existence as Kentucky Baptists’ gospel-centered ministry to orphans and neglected children.
“How I wish Smithwick would have been willing and desirous to meet with Kentucky Baptists or their elected leadership before attempting to secretly change the biblical convictions that have guided the organization since its founding 154 years ago,” Chitwood added. “Surely we could have found a better way to walk forward together.”
In 1998, Sunrise, then known as Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, fired an employee when it became common knowledge that she was a lesbian. A portion of the legal wrangling continues, but the courts threw out the former employee’s claim of discrimination by Sunrise.
Established in 1869 as a Louisville orphanage primarily for children displaced by the Civil War, Sunrise today cares for approximately 2,000 children annually through residential services, foster care, community-based outpatient programs and other services located across the state.
Each year, messengers to the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s annual meeting approve trustees and directors of 10 agencies and institutions affiliated with the convention, including those serving on Sunrise’s board. Those organizations also receive funding from Kentucky Baptists through the Cooperative Program. Additionally, the Sunrise ministry has received support for decades from Kentucky Baptist churches and associations through the Thanksgiving Offering, Food Roundup and Mile of Pennies.
Still, according to Smithwick’s letter to pastors, such support today totals about $1 million compared to the approximately $26 million that Sunrise receives annually from the state and federal governments to care for abused and neglected children.
On his blog, Chitwood cited the covenant agreement between KBC and Sunrise that states the relationship “is built upon many years of faithful commitment and trust by many individuals and by many millions of dollars contributed by Kentucky Baptists in support.” The agreement also states that Sunrise “shall maintain its distinctive Baptist character as set forth in its purpose and the support of the Kentucky Baptist Convention is based upon faithful adherence to that purpose.”
Summerlin said he continues to pray that Sunrise board members would make the courageous, if culturally unpopular, decision to maintain the current hiring practice. “The key question is, do (Sunrise) trustees want to be a Baptist agency or a secular institution,” Summerlin said. “I pray they will consider their history and heritage as they seek an answer to that vital question.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Todd Deaton is editor of the Western Recorder, newsjournal of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. KBC Communications writer Dannah Prather contributed to this report. To read an earlier Baptist Press report, click here.)