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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?
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