Sunrise Children’s Services’ 25-year legal battle ends in victory
LOUISVILLE, KY (BP) – A 25-year-old legal dispute has finally been settled in favor of Sunrise Children’s Services. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati unanimously affirmed the final dismissal of all the plaintiffs’ claims against Sunrise with prejudice in a ruling Tuesday.
The dismissal with prejudice is the functional and legal equivalent of a final judgment on the merits in Sunrise’s favor following a full-blown trial. This was Sunrise’s fifth trip to the appeals court, and it prevailed each time.
“We are grateful it’s over and grateful we were not found guilty of any wrongdoing,” said Sunrise President Dale Suttles.
The case dates to 1999 when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled for Sunrise in a dispute involving former employee Alicia Pedreira.
Pedreira and the ACLU then sued Sunrise and the Commonwealth of Kentucky in federal court in 2000, falsely accusing Sunrise of LGBT and religious discrimination.
The court rejected those discrimination claims immediately, and the dismissal was unanimously affirmed by the appellate court in the early 2000s. The discrimination claims remained dead and buried for the remainder of the case.
Sunrise has never been found to have unlawfully discriminated against anyone on any basis. However, the dispute over Kentucky’s reimbursements to Sunrise for essential childcare services continued for the next two decades.
Kentucky settled the case, but Sunrise refused to go along.
Attorney John Sheller of Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLC represented Sunrise throughout the 25-year ordeal.
“What the court of appeals has done here is approve the district court’s decision to dismiss the case because of the settlement between Kentucky and the ACLU, a settlement to which Sunrise was not a party and did not agree,” Sheller said. “The essence of the case was the state’s decision to continue to partner with Sunrise. The judge determined if Kentucky and the ACLU want to settle their disputes, they can do so.”
The dismissal of the case with prejudice means it cannot be refiled, he said.
It is essentially a victory for Sunrise, Sheller said, “because it was not found liable, isn’t found to have done anything wrong and is free to continue doing what it was doing. That’s the long and short of the decision.
There is a concurring opinion from the court that further underscored the First Amendment rights of Sunrise as a faith-based organization, Sheller said.
Among the settlement terms between Kentucky and the ACLU were: engaging in affirmative action, recognizing same-sex marriage and having the LGBTQ community on staffs and in foster families. Again, Sunrise’s First Amendment rights as a faith-based organization were upheld.
“Sunrise didn’t agree with that even though Kentucky did,” Sheller said of the settlement.
Several recent religious liberty decisions rendered by the Supreme Court, including Fulton v. Philadelphia, and other federal and state courts reinforce the protection of Sunrise’s First Amendment rights.
It is now the law of the land in all 50 states, thanks to Sunrise and others like it, that faith-based child-care providers can continue their support for vulnerable children without compromising or abandoning their religious values.
Suttles said he was thankful for the 25 years of support and many prayers.
“This is a case that never hindered us from serving these needy children, but it was always out there, always haunting us and it would always frustrate us,” he said. “We just wanted to serve children.”
Sunrise achieved the outcome without a single child, parent, or guardian ever being forced to testify in the case or without ever having to disclose private, sensitive, and confidential information or documents about the children and their families, Sheller said.
Sunrise never lost its state contracts, state funding, and never cut back on the children and families it was and is helping. In fact, over the last quarter-century, Sunrise has greatly expanded its size and scope and continues to be a top provider for the commonwealth’s most troubled and endangered children.
“I really think God has some major plans for Sunrise to help the commonwealth through the crisis it is facing in trying to place teenagers,” Suttles said.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lawrence Smith is the communications director for the Kentucky Baptist Convention.