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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."
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