Kentucky Baptists Elect to Starve Abused Children Rather Than Hire Gay People

neglected child
Collateral damage.

Photo by Xavier S./Thinkstock

Some absolutely sickening news out of Kentucky this month: Sunrise Children’s Services, which shelters and feeds more than 2,000 abused and neglected children every year, is facing a $7 million budget shortfall—a shortfall entirely manufactured by the Kentucky Baptist Convention in order to prevent Sunrise from hiring gay people.

The trouble started last year, when Sunrise’s then-president and CEO, Bill Smithwick, suggested that the group end its ban on hiring gay people. Smithwick reasoned that, with LGBT nondiscrimination legislation on the horizon, Sunrise’s anti-gay policies could cause the charity to lose its taxpayer funding, which accounts for about 85 percent of its operating budget. Kentucky’s Baptist community, however, wasn’t so enthusiastic. As soon as Smithwick introduced the proposal, the Kentucky Baptist Convention encouraged its affiliates to blacklist Sunrise until it abandoned its proposed nondiscrimination policy. Church donors across the state immediately began withholding their usual contributions, refusing to donate a penny to an organization that might hire openly gay people.

Smithwick’s fall from grace was swift and brutal. The Sunrise board quickly voted down his proposal, and soon after, the Kentucky Baptist Convention as a whole passed a vote of no-confidence in Smithwick. This vote—really a public shaming—essentially forced Smithwick to resign. Only after his resignation did the convention agree to allow its affiliate churches to donate to the children’s charity once again. But that period on the Baptist blacklist may have damaged Sunrise’s budget beyond repair.

There is, of course, so much here to be disgusted by. But it’s worth starting with the convention’s repulsive attacks on Smithwick’s reputation. Smithwick led Sunrise for nearly 17 years, vastly expanding its size and outreach. During his tenure, Smithwick was a leader in the fight against child abuse: He served on the board of the Virginia Association of Children’s Homes, the National Association of Christian Child and Family Services, the Children’s Alliance of Kentucky, Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky, and Kentucky Youth Advocates. Before coming to Sunrise, Smithwick worked at Virginia Baptist Children’s Home & Family Services, which served abused and neglected children. He devoted his life to helping kids in need. And now—because he floated a practical measure designed to forestall future budget problems—Smithwick has been expelled from the field and ostracized by his own convention.

It’s that convention, of course, that deserves the bulk of the outrage. If Kentucky Baptists didn’t want openly gay people helping to clothe, feed, and shelter abused and neglected children, they could simply have rejected Smithwick’s proposal. That, however, was not sufficient for the convention, which would not rest—or restore funding to Sunrise—until Smithwick was ousted from the organization altogether. This astonishingly petty and vindictive retaliation was, in fact, unnecessary, as no one else at Sunrise was willing even to entertain Smithwick’s proposal. But clearly, the convention wanted to send a brutally clear message to anyone who might consider dropping their ban on hiring gay people in the future.

Aside from Smithwick, no one will understand that message better than the 2,000 children who rely upon Sunrise every year to protect them from dire poverty or abusive parents. Thanks to the convention’s actions against Sunrise, those children’s wellbeing is now imperiled by a grave (and entirely manufactured) budget shortfall. In protesting Smithwick’s proposal, the convention claimed that hiring gay people would violate Baptist teaching. It seems, then, that depriving impoverished kids of food, clothes, and services in order to make a political point is more Christian than allowing a children’s charity to stop discriminating against gays.