Explainer: The contract dispute between Kentucky and Sunrise Children’s Services

May 10, 2021

A longstanding partnership between the Kentucky State Cabinet for Health and Family Services and Sunrise Children’s Services, one of the state’s oldest foster care providers, is in jeopardy of not being renewed after a months-long disagreement over language included in their annual contract. Sunrise Children’s Services, an institution of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, dates back to 1859, and their partnership with the state of Kentucky has been ongoing since the late 1970s. According to Dale Suttles, president of Sunrise, Sunrise Children’s Services “has helped the adoption of close to 600 children in state care become a reality over the last 15 years.”

What is the nature of the dispute?

As Todd Gray, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, said last week, “the dispute comes down to a conflict over one sentence in the contract the state has refused to delete.” While declining to address the specific details of the contract, Suttles and Gray both insist that the aforementioned sentence is one that conflicts with the organization’s deeply held religious beliefs. 

Susan Dunlap, a spokeswoman for the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, argued the agreement submitted to Sunrise is “an agreement required by federal law.” Adding to the confusion, the Courier-Journal, the paper of record in Kentucky, characterized the dispute with the misleading headline, “Baptist group refuses Kentucky state contract to provide care for abused, neglected kids.”

Why the dispute now?

In the relationship between the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and Sunrise Children’s Services, there is a contract that must be reviewed and agreed upon by both parties on an annual basis. “In years past,” according to Gray, “an addendum or accommodation has been given (allowing for the exercise of Sunrise’s religious liberty), but that’s not the case in 2021.” After months of reaching out and attempting to discuss the contract with the cabinet, and arriving at no resolution, Gray stated that under these terms, “Sunrise cannot renew their contract with the state because of their deeply held religious beliefs.”

Without the addendum attached to the contract, as it has been in years past, Sunrise is unable to finalize the agreement. 

What are the consequences if no agreement is reached?

According to their website, Sunrise Children’s Services “provides care for close to 1,000 kids and family members throughout the state of Kentucky,” which includes foster care, therapeutic residential services, psychiatric residential treatment services, family services, and an independent living program for kids and families in crisis. If no agreement is reached, the commonwealth should “anticipate some degree of disruption” to its child welfare services, says Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. 

Though Suttles insists that Sunrise “won’t abandon Kentucky’s children,” it is undeniable that failure to reach an agreement with the cabinet will pose significant challenges to one of the state’s most valuable providers of children’s services and the children they serve. 

Where do things stand now?

While there are reports that Sunrise Children’s Services has refused the state contract or are “pulling out on the state,” Gray says that “nothing could be further from the truth. Sunrise would sign a contract today that respects their deeply held religious convictions.”

As it stands, the ball seems to be in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services’ court. If they are willing to adopt an addendum or accommodation, as they’ve done for so many years, that allows for the exercise of Sunrise Children’s Services religious liberty, Sunrise is adamant that they will promptly sign the agreement. But Suttles and Gray are adamant that Sunrise will not compromise their long-held religious convictions.

How does religious liberty factor in?

Religious freedom is a fundamental right. It is unconscionable that a government, which has for so long benefited from the services provided by Kentucky Baptists, discriminate against its citizens on the basis of their religion. No religious entity should be forced between the services they provide and the faith that motivates them to provide it. Kentucky’s children should not be used as pawns in the cabinet’s efforts to eliminate conscience protections for religious citizens in Kentucky.

Sunrise Children’s Services is a vital provider of care for children in crisis in Kentucky. The ERLC stands with Sunrise and Kentucky Baptists in this matter. And we urge the cabinet to make the necessary accommodations, actions that represent no material burden to Kentucky, to resolve this matter immediately. Child welfare is no place for the state to play games to advance pernicious social policy.

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester serves as Director of Content and Chair of Research in Christian Ethics. He holds an M.Div from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Th.M. in Public Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author