New lawsuit charges Methodist Children's Home uses tax dollars to discriminate in employment and to indoctrinate foster youth in religion
(Atlanta and New York Thursday, August 1, 2002) - A new lawsuit challenging public funding of a religious organization was filed yesterday in Georgia, charging the United Methodist Children's Home (the Home) in Decatur with using state tax dollars to discriminate in employment and to indoctrinate foster youth in religion. Seven Georgia taxpayers, including a lesbian youth counselor and a Jewish psychotherapist who were denied the right to work at the Home for religious reasons, are filing the lawsuit to stop Georgia from funding the Home unless it changes its practices. The case is the latest controversy in the national debate over government funding of religious organizations.
Represented by Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (Lambda Legal), the plaintiffs charge that, despite receiving 40% of its budget from the State of Georgia, the Home will only hire Christians, fired a lesbian counselor because her sexual orientation conflicted with the Home’s religious teachings, and refused to hire a highly qualified psychotherapist because he is Jewish. The lawsuit also alleges that the Home requires its staff to provide services to lesbian and gay youth, and other youth, based on its own religious beliefs rather than on sound professional practices. For example, the Home instructs its staff that lesbian and gay youth should be sent into potentially dangerous intervention therapy to undermine the youth’s sexual orientation. In addition, all youth at the state-funded facility are required to attend Methodist services, regardless of their religious beliefs.
"Citizens of Georgia do not expect their tax dollars to be used to fund religious discrimination, and the Constitution does not allow it," said Lambda Legal supervising attorney Susan Sommer. "The state must hold the United Methodist Children's Home accountable and stop funding the Home as long as it continues to use tax dollars to force its religious beliefs on young people in state custody and to discriminate in employment."
This lawsuit is the latest chapter in a national debate on government funding of religious groups prompted by the Bush Administration’s "Faith-Based Initiative," which would allow churches and religious groups to receive taxpayer dollars even if they discriminate. The lawsuit, Bellmore v. United Methodist Children's Home and Department of Human Resources of Georgia, alleges that Georgia is violating the federal and Georgia Constitutions by financing a religious institution that discriminates on the basis of religion and uses taxpayer money to fund a program of Methodist religious indoctrination.
The lawsuit charges that the lead plaintiff, Aimee Bellmore, was fired because she is a lesbian and does not share the Home's religious beliefs about homosexuality. Bellmore was a highly capable youth counselor at the Home who had been notified in July 2001 that she would soon be promoted to the position of family therapist. Instead, Bellmore was terminated in November of that year after the Home learned that she was a lesbian. She was informed that to promote its religious beliefs, the Home would employ only Christian heterosexuals who are married or celibate.
"My sexual orientation has nothing to do with my ability to be a good counselor, and I proved that at the Home," said Bellmore, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. "Gay and lesbian youth in foster care need someone who's supportive and sensitive to their needs, not someone who'll make them ashamed of who they are and try to change them in the name of religion."
Plaintiff Alan Yorker is an exceptionally qualified psychotherapist who has practiced adolescent and family therapy for over 20 years. When Yorker sent his resume to the Home in October 2001, he was promptly called for an interview to fill a vacant position. But when the Home's director of social work services realized Yorker was Jewish, she terminated the interview and told him that the Home does not hire Jews.
"It's painful to have someone tell you they won't even interview you for a job because of your religion," said Alan Yorker, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. "But the pain becomes greater when you realize your own taxes are supporting that discrimination. Worst of all, I'm being deprived of the chance to work at what I do best -helping young people who need it most."
"Concern for the needs of lesbian and gay foster care youth is a driving force behind this lawsuit", said Sommer. Tens of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) adolescents are in out-of-home care in the US. LGBT adolescents are disproportionately represented in foster care because they commonly find themselves disapproved of and rejected by their families and communities and become part of the foster care, runaway, and “throwaway” populations.
Approximately 70 adolescents in State custody reside in the Home's residential campus facility in Decatur. The United Methodist Children's Home describes itself as a “church.”
Child welfare experts, clergy and concerned parents joined Bellmore and Yorker as plaintiffs in the lawsuit because they object to their tax dollars being used to fund the Home's religious discrimination and indoctrination. They include:
- Stephanie Swann, Ph.D., assistant professor, University of Georgia School for Social Work, and founder of YouthPride, Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia.
- Rabbi Joshua Lesser, rabbi of Congregation Bet Haverim, a Jewish congregation in Decatur.
- Thomas Morton, president of the Child Welfare Institute, headquartered in Duluth, Georgia.
- The Very Reverend Harry Pritchett, rector emeritus of All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta.
- Gloria Rutherford, mother of a gay teenaged son and a board member of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
The lawsuit, Bellmore v. United Methodist Children's Home and Department of Human Resources of Georgia, was filed in the Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia.
Attorneys on the case include Lambda Legal attorneys Sommer, Stephen Scarborough and Greg Nevins, along with cooperating attorneys Debra Schwartz and Marcia Borowski, of Thompson, Rollins, Schwartz & Borowski, LLC, in Decatur, Georgia.
In New York: Geoffrey Knox: 212-229-0540
In Atlanta: Stephen Scarborough: 404-897-1880