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Unholy alliance 

As the White House tries to make it even easier for tax dollars to flow to religious organizations, Aimee Bellmore's lawsuit against the United Methodist's Children Home in Decatur may stand in the way

Certain facts of the case are undisputed. Aimee Bellmore was a social worker at the United Methodist Children's Home. Her position was "unit coordinator" -- she supervised staff and helped them counsel the at-risk youths who live on the home's leafy campus off Columbia Street in Decatur.
After three months on the job, she was a "dedicated and reliable employee," according to an evaluation.

There was even talk of a creating a new position for her, one that involved less supervision and more doing what she liked best -- helping kids. But then, one day last November, she was abruptly fired.

She saw it coming.

It was her boss's boss, Jeffrey Amos, the campus director, who called her into his office. This is how Bellmore recalls the conversation:

"Well," he said, "it's time."

"I need you to tell me why," Bellmore said.

"You know why you're being fired," Amos said.

"I want you to tell me. I want to hear it out of your mouth."

"You're being fired because you're gay, because of your sexual orientation."

Bellmore asked for the reason in writing, she says, but Amos provided only a standard severance letter.

"I told him that by him following through with the decision to fire me, that I lost a lot of respect for him. That I really enjoyed my work there. He really wanted me to know that he appreciated my work. And that he separates his professional life from his personal life and that unfortunately, it was his job to fire me because he was instructed to do this."

The home has declined to comment on most aspects regarding the lawsuit, and Amos didn't return a call made to his office last week.

Since 1964, it's been illegal in the U.S. to hire or fire someone based on that person's race, religion, gender or ethnicity. Lesbians and gays, however, are not granted the same protection. Even if they were, Bellmore would still be out of luck: That same Civil Rights Act exempts religious institutions from the law. The idea is as old as the First Amendment -- that the church should be free to conduct its affairs without government interference.

Nevertheless, two weeks ago, Bellmore filed a lawsuit against the United Methodist Children's Home, claiming that getting fired because of her sexual orientation amounted to, in fact, religious discrimination. She also is suing the Georgia Department of Human Resources, the state agency that funds almost 40 percent of the home's operating budget, according to the complaint. Blending religion and government violates both the federal and the state constitutions, she argues. It also means the home can't say it's free to hire and fire with impunity.

"We're saying the exemption doesn't apply because they're taking public money, which means you can't just make up your own rules," says Stephen Scarborough, an attorney with Lambda Legal, the national gay rights organization that is representing Bellmore.

"Normally, we don't have any problem with Methodists determining what Methodists believe and Catholics determining what Catholics believe, or whatever," Scarborough says. "That's not our business. But the rules do change when you're taking money out of the state treasury to fund this."

Bellmore's lawsuit comes as Congress is debating whether to blur even further the line between church and state. In 1996, "charitable choice" laws -- championed by John Ashcroft, then a U.S. senator and now George W. Bush's attorney general -- made it easier for religious organizations that engage in social services to win federal grants and contracts.

Under the law, organizations that are funded by tax dollars no longer have to hide their Bibles or otherwise cover up signs of their religious agenda; instead, the onus is on the government to find a "secular alternative" if a client objects to the dogma he's exposed to at the religious organization. The White House is looking to expand charitable choice to include such areas as housing and drug treatment.

While Bellmore's case, filed in Fulton County Superior Court, concerns state money, it could easily become a rallying cry not only for gay rights advocates, but for those worried that "faith-based initiatives" is a step closer to state-sanctioned religion.

Should taxpayer dollars go to places that condemn homosexuality in its employees and discourage it in its clients, or that require its employees be Christian, or that they be married or celibate? Is religious discrimination OK even when it's on the taxpayer's dime? Can "charitable choice" withstand constitutional scrutiny? And should a place like United Methodist Children's Home take state money and still be free to impart its beliefs on the people it serves?

"Churches for centuries have served a big community purpose in our country," says Stephanie Swann, a University of Georgia professor, founder of YouthPride, and one of five people recruited by Lambda to represent Georgia taxpayers in the lawsuit. "My problem is when it's discriminatory. If they could provide services without the missionary approach attached to it, I think that's one thing. When it gets into proselytizing, it becomes problematic. And I don't know how you legislate the difference between the two."

Since 1871, the United Methodist Children's Home has been taking in troubled youth. It started out as an orphanage for the children of soldiers killed in the Civil War. Today, most children who call the home "home" aren't orphans, but are looking for refuge from troubled families. Referrals come from the state, from other charities in the region, from places of worship. Occasionally, a family in need will even show up at the front door.
Costs to care for the children average a little over $100 per child per day; for each child it places at the home, the state picks up about half that amount, according to Richard Puckett, the home's director of public relations. The rest is funded by charitable donations.

For all but the first two of its 131 years, the home has been in Decatur, spread over 100 acres, a peaceful campus of shady trees, manicured lawns and winding driveways. Up until the late 1960s, cows and hogs roamed the grounds as part of a working farm. Today, wild geese graze over the baseball field, not far from the fenced-in swimming pool. The seven cottages each can house up to 10 children. And tucked just behind and to the left of the white-columned administration building, in a grove of towering trees, is the chapel.

Religion is at once obvious and hidden here. The home's brochure promises: "Clinicial, health, spiritual, educational and recreational services are provided."

When Aimee Bellmore answered an ad in the paper early last year, religion was very apparent. As part of her application, she says, she was required to sign a document titled "The United Methodist Children's Home Position on Family, Marriage and Human Sexuality."

"There are certain principles to which [the home] ascribes by its very nature of being a Christian, church-related agency," says the document, according to Bellmore's lawsuit. "These principles provide the foundation for the values which we hope to communicate to the young people entrusted to our care." Among those principles was an assertion that the home does "not condone the practice of homosexuality" and that sexual relations of any kind are "only clearly affirmed in the marriage bond."

Raised Catholic, Bellmore is now a kind of religious hybrid. She's fascinated by Buddhism, she says, and believes there is "inherent truth to every world religion." But it was the part in the document concerning homosexuality that alarmed her. During the interview, she says, she expressed her concerns to her prospective boss, Sherri Rawsthorn.

"I made it very clear I would be advocating and supporting any youth at the home who had decided to come out as being gay or who was questioning their sexual orientation," Bellmore says. "I said that was very important to me. I said if that doesn't fit with you, that's fine, but you need to know where I'm coming from."

Rawsthorn, Bellmore says, put her at ease.

"She really assured me that in signing the form, I would still be able to uphold my beliefs and that the form was just a formality. She glossed over it. She said the Methodists got funding from the North Georgia Conference [the regional governing body of the Methodist Church and the home's owner], so it was important for funding purposes that the form was signed, but that that should have no influence on the kind of work that I'd be able to do there.

"I felt, well, this person will be my direct supervisor and if she's telling me she's in line with my belief system and that I can do this kind of work here, I decided, well, OK, I'll give this a try."

Bellmore signed the form. Her first day was April 5, 2001.

As with any social services job, there was no typical day. One morning, she might be called to a local high school to act as a surrogate parent when one of the children found trouble. Another afternoon, she might be leading a therapy group. Other days might find her conducting team training sessions.

And while she says she was given healthy support by Rawsthorn, over time the sectarian nature of the place was unavoidable. "There were people that were very, very conservative there," Bellmore says. Still, it wasn't until a training session in late August that she learned just how conservative. There, she says, one of the home's top administrators asked the staff a question: What if a child approaches you and wants to come out as being gay? Do you advocate and support the youth, and provide that person with information about support services, or do you notify a supervisor so that the person can be sent for psychological intervention therapy?

Bellmore recalls that "a lot of people raised their hands and said, 'You support and advocate for the child.' But he cut everybody off and said, 'No, you don't. You do not support and advocate for that child. You refer that child to appropriate psychological intervention services. C'mon you guys, this is UMCH. This is a Methodist church. We do not condone homosexuality.'"

What's unclear is exactly what those psychological intervention services entail. Bellmore came to one conclusion -- that the home recommends such youth for "reparative therapy," intervention designed to alter sexual orientation from gay or lesbian to heterosexual.

"If we're not allowed to support and advocate for them, and if the psychological services are in line with UMCH philosophy, and if UMCH does not condone homosexuality, that kind of leaves one option," she says.

In the psychiatric field, reparative therapy has garnered wide criticism. It's been shown to lead to depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide. Speaking for the home, Puckett declined comment on the policy in dealing with such youths. He added that there are "some allegations in the lawsuit that are clearly not true" but would not specify which ones.

Recalling the meeting that day, Bellmore still sounds shocked. In many ways, she says, the staff at the home are the "closest things to parents that a lot of these kids have had. So I just imagined a young person coming out and saying, 'Hey, I'm gay,' and having their parent ignore them."

Distressed, Bellmore says, she went to Rawsthorn, who told her not to worry, that important changes could be made at the home from inside.

So, instead of quitting, Bellmore stayed. "I'd say, maybe I can do this. Maybe it is important for places like this to have people like me so I can make these changes. And maybe that's what's most important."

Meanwhile, Bellmore had received a glowing review from her boss. A new position was being created for Bellmore, she says. But at some point -- Bellmore is not sure when -- word leaked out that she is a lesbian. An apologetic Rawsthorn took Bellmore to lunch and told her that "things don't look good," recalls Bellmore. Rawsthorn declined comment.

"It was a waiting game," Bellmore says. "I was just waiting to get fired. It was terrible."

When the day finally came, she broke the news to the youths in her charge. "They were like, 'You need to slap a lawsuit on this place, Miss Aimee!'"

Which, two weeks ago, she did.

Bellmore's case is not without precedent. In 1998, a woman named Alicia Pedreira was fired from her therapist job at the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children after a co-worker saw a photograph of her in an exhibit at the Kentucky State Fair. The photo showed Pedreira wearing a tank top that said "Isle of Lesbos." She was standing in front of another woman.
"[My bosses] were implying I was unfit to work face to face with children," says Pedreira, who now lives in Florida. "I'm a lesbian, not a pedophile."

Pedreira, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sued in federal court. She claimed that because her sexual orientation wasn't consistent with Baptist beliefs, that her firing amounted to religious discrimination. A judge disagreed, and in a finely parsed decision wrote that the Baptist home "imposes upon its employees a code of conduct which requires consistency with [the Baptist home's] religious beliefs, but not the beliefs themselves."

The judge still has not ruled on the other allegation: that the Baptist home was in violation of the First Amendment by using government money to advance its religious agenda.

While that grinds through the federal courts, a similar battle has now flared up in Georgia, thanks to Bellmore's lawsuit. Also named as a plaintiff is Alan Yorker, who applied for a position at United Methodist Children's Home last October only to be rejected, the lawsuit claims, because he is Jewish.

On its website, the Methodist home's hiring policy is unapologetic: "The United Methodist Children's Home acknowledges that non-Christians have done much good in our world. However, in order that we may preserve our identity as an agency of a Christian church in carrying out our mission, it is necessary that we declare all of our paid staff positions to be religious sensitive. Therefore, in all of our paid staff positions, it is our intent to employ only persons who profess Christianity as their religion."

"Alan Yorker was a victim of that policy," says Susan Sommer, a lawyer at Lambda Legal's national headquarters in New York and the lead attorney in the Bellmore case. "Aimee Bellmore was a victim of the same religious-based hiring litmus test. Because she didn't adhere to the religious beliefs of UMCH, she was fired. In their eyes, it was no different than belonging to a different religious denomination."

What's more, Sommer says, just because the home has a religious affiliation doesn't exempt it from federal laws. "Because the UMCH is substantially government funded, it can no longer hide behind the shield of being a religious institution. If it wants to accept government money, then it has to play by the rules of any government-funded institution."

According to the home's own budget numbers offered up in the lawsuit, the home has received between $1 million and $1.3 million each of the last three years from the "government." Most of that, undoubtedly, is traceable back to individual county Department of Family and Children Services offices, which refer children to the home.

"I'm hoping the state will require the UMCH and any other social services agency like it to stop engaging in religious indoctrination and hiring discrimination," Sommer says.

As similar as Bellmore's case might be to Pedreira's, there is at least one noticeable difference: Bellmore's attorneys have behind them the weight, such as it is, of the Georgia state constitution, which states: "No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, cult or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution."

Citing the lawsuit, the state Department of Human Resources declined comment.

When "charitable choice" legislation was passed in 1996, the bill's authors sought to ease the concerns of those worried about abridging the First Amendment's Establishment clause, which guarantees that church and state will be kept separate. If the government is contracting with a religious-based organization, it has to provide potential clients with a secular alternative. What's more, government funds can't be used to proselytize.

"How can you believe that?" asks Robert Boston, director of communications at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "What is proselytizing? It could be as subtle as a crucifix on a wall of a homeless center. Another person may say, 'I don't mind that, but if they make me pray, that's going too far.'"

Indeed, one of the contentions in Bellmore's lawsuit is that United Methodist Children's Home requires that all the children it serves -- regardless of their religion or ethnicity -- to participate in "Methodist services and training." Youths interested in other religious views, the lawsuit claims, are encouraged to read Bibles provided by the home. Again, Puckett, the home's spokesman, declined to comment, citing the lawsuit.

While charitable choice was passed under the Clinton administration, the former president never seemed too enthusiastic about the idea, Boston says. "But a much more activist spirit is coming out of this administration. Administration officials are coming in and talking to religious groups about how to apply for federal grants."

It isn't just the secular crowd worried about the mingling of church and state. Some religious leaders, including Jerry Falwell, fret that opening the federal dollar spigot will compromise their own independence.

And in Congress, some lawmakers wonder whether charitable choice is necessary at all. If the idea is to level the playing field, then aren't religious organizations given an unfair advantage by not being expected to play by the same rules of hiring? And if what's being funded by the government is the secular aspect of their work, why should a religious group object to hiring non-believers?

As much of a mandate as President Bush thinks he may have on the issue, he might consider a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center. While 75 percent either favored or strongly favored allowing churches and other houses of worship to apply for government funding for social services, 78 percent said religious organizations using government funds for social services should not be allowed to hire only people who share their religious beliefs. Clearly, Americans want to strike a fine balance.

"Generally, people are more liberal than they think," Boston says. "They're more open-minded than you think. Most people have a live-and-let-live philosophy."

After she was fired from United Methodist Children's Home, Bellmore talked to more lawyers, poked around for another job, and finally decided to return to Oregon, where her mother was ailing with cancer. Last winter, she flew to Guatemala, where she'd studied years before, to brush up on her Spanish. It was also, she says, a perfect time to get away. For five months, she lived in Quetzaltenango, a city of 250,000 nestled in the Sierra Madres, 8,000 feet above sea level. Besides brushing up on her Spanish, she taught English to inmates at a women's prison.
Plotting her return trip back to Oregon, where she's now living, she arranged a layover in Atlanta so she could be in town when the lawsuit was filed. A press conference was held two Thursdays ago, but the collapsing billboard of Snellville pushed Bellmore's lawsuit to the bottom of local TV newscasts. The daily paper didn't seem interested.

Of course, filing the lawsuit is just the first step in what could be a years-long process. But as Boston says, "This is the next big wave of church-state litigation. If the so-called 'faith-based initiatives' take hold around the nation and a lot of tax money starts to flow to organizations that provide social services, there's going to be a groundswell of pressure from the public for some kind of accountability. And all questions that constitute what is discrimination will come into play.

"You're blazing a trail there."

steve.fennessy@creativeloafing.com

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