An appeals court ruled a district court judge must reconsider his order allowing two progressive groups, described by critics as atheist, to have oversight over the operations of a Christian foster care agency in Kentucky.
The original ruling from Judge Charles R. Simpson III came in a years-long case brought by a couple of taxpayers who objected to the contracting of Sunrise Children’s Services to care for children in the custody of the state.
The case, filed in 2000, was in the courts in various forms over the years until recently, when Simpson approved an agreement reached between the plaintiffs and the state.
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In the deal, Kentucky agreed to change some provisions of its standard contract for caring for children, such as telling the child if a foster home has a religious affiliation and requiring that children be given an opportunity to go to the church of their choice.
It also specifies that Kentucky “must provide the ACLU and Americans United [for Separation of Church and State] with information about the religious beliefs for all children in Sunrise’s care, the completed exit surveys for those children, any reports that the state’s caseworkers write about Sunrise, and records of any religious activities and Sunrise’s group homes.”
The deal essentially allows the two progressive groups oversight of Sunrise activities.
The problem is that Sunrise was cut out of the negotiations by the state and the plaintiffs, was not allowed any input, was not allowed to object and was provided no opportunity for a defense.
That, the ruling from the 6th Circuit Court said, failed to meet muster.
“Before entering a consent decree, a district court must determine, among other things, that the agreement is ‘fair, adequate, and reasonable, as well as consistent with the public interest,’” the ruling said. “Moreover, the court must allow anyone affected by the decree to ‘present evidence and have its objections heard.’”
The state and the two organizations argued it was a private agreement, not technically a “consent decree,” so the requirements didn’t apply.
The appeals court called the argument “of a piece.”
“The district court mistakenly characterized the settlement as a private agreement and thus held that Sunrise had no right to object to it. … We will therefore remand this case for that purpose.”
The ruling continued: “We do flag one concern that the court did not consider. As a practical matter, the complaint’s allegations of wrongdoing are directed largely at Sunrise. Sunrise, in turn, has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing on its part, and for more than a decade of litigation, including to this day, has … sought a merits adjudication to clear its name.
“Meanwhile, over Sunrise’s objection, the consent degree singles out Sunrise by name for special monitoring by the ACLU and Americans United; and in doing so, Sunrise argues, the decree subjects Sunrise to unique reputational harm.
“Thus, the decree denies Sunrise a chance to clear its name – and instead, over Sunrise’s objection, imposes the very reputational harm that Sunrise sought to avoid by means of 15 years of litigation.”
The plaintiffs’ original concern was that the contract between the state and the foster care agency violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause concerning separation of church and state.
The appeals judges said a deal that did not explicitly single out Sunrise might be different.