Settlement in Methodist home case has ripple effect

In the eyes of George W. Bush, the line between church and state is drawn with chalk — easily moved or erased altogether. Perhaps no policy reflects that better than his so-called "faith-based" initiatives, which make it easier for religious organizations that engage in social services to get federal tax dollars.

But if the case of Aimee Bellmore is any indication, religious groups that take tax money had better be careful about who they hire — and fire. In 2001, Bellmore worked as a therapist at the United Methodist Children's Home in Decatur. Six months later, after positive reviews and a promotion, she was fired. The reason? She is a lesbian. Bellmore sued not only the Children's Home, but also the state, which provides roughly 40 percent of the Home's operating budget. (A story about Bellmore's case was featured in the Aug. 14, 2002, edition of CL and can be found at atlanta.creativeloafing.com/ 2002-08-14/cover.html.)

Bellmore — along with a fellow plaintiff who claimed he was turned down for a job at the Home because he is Jewish — argued in the lawsuit that if the Home was going to take tax dollars, then it could not hire and fire based on a person's religion or sexual orientation. On Nov. 5, 15 months after the lawsuit was filed, Lambda Legal, which represented Bellmore in the lawsuit, announced that the Home has agreed to amend its policies. According to terms of the out-of-court settlement, the Home's policy now states that it "does not discriminate against staff and volunteers on the basis of sexual orientation or marital status." Moreover, the Home promises not to subject children who wonder if they might be gay to "psychological or religious conversion therapies to alter their sexual orientation."

What's unclear is whether such therapies — which are controversial and have been shown to lead to depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide — were ever used on children at the Home. Greg Nevins, an attorney for Lambda Legal, said "rather than focus on what had happened in the past, the question was getting a commitment from them that that wouldn't happen going forward."

Nevins said there was also a financial component to the settlement, but would not disclose numbers. Bellmore, who now works as a mental health counselor at Metro State Prison in Atlanta, said she is "very satisfied. I think it's going to have some wonderful and strong effects on this state and perhaps nationwide."

Statewide, at least, that appears to be true already. Religious organizations that take state money now cannot discriminate when filling positions which are funded, in whole or in part, with state money. Of course, how closely sectarian groups will abide by that agreement remains to be seen; on UMCH's website, there are two counselor positions advertised — and, as of Nov. 4, both still required that an applicant be a "professing Christian."

Reached Tuesday afternoon, Beverly Cochran, the Home administrator, could not immediately comment, saying he hadn't yet seen a finalized version of the settlement.

Lambda Legal's announcement of the settlement coincided with the release of a three-year study by Indiana University of faith-based contracting in three states — Indiana, North Carolina and Massachusetts. The study found that states did not monitor for possible constitutional violations, and that states did little to educate religious organizations about responsibilities under the Constitution.

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