A federal judge has thrown out a legal settlement that would regulate how Kentucky uses religious-based foster homes for children

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A federal judge has thrown out a legal settlement that would require Kentucky to monitor faith-based foster homes to make sure they don’t use public money to evangelize children in the state’s care.

The ruling is part of a nearly 20-year-old lawsuit challenging state funding of Sunrise Children’s Services, a private child care facility owned by the Kentucky Baptist Convention. The group has had a contract with the state since 1978. Of the group’s 1,214 children, 390 are wards of the state.

In 2000, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued, accusing Sunrise Children’s Services of using taxpayer dollars to coerce children in state custody into religious practices.

In 2015, former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration signed a settlement that would have closed the case. The agreement required the state to closely monitor its private child care providers’ religious activities. Lawyers for the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State would get access to state documents to make sure the state was following the rules. The documents would redact children’s names and other personal identifying information.

The Beshear administration agreed to the settlement a few weeks before Republican Gov. Matt Bevin took office. Bevin, a religious conservative who has been a major donor to the Southern Baptist Convention, opposed the settlement, saying it’s intent was to “scrub out anybody’s exposure to anything religious if they are in government care.”

“The governor of Kentucky gave authority to those two organizations to track the religious preferences and any religious activities of foster children in our private care providers in Kentucky,” Bevin said in a video posted to his Twitter account. “That’s unbelievable, an incredible intrusion of people’s rights and people’s privacy.”

Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Charles Simpson threw out the settlement because he said the state would have to write new regulations to comply with it, which is illegal under state law. Lawyers for the ACLU and Americans United criticized the reversal as politically motivated.

“The question of politics … matters not a whit in this analysis,” Simpson wrote. “The court is concerned only with the legality of the agreement, whether it is reasonable, fair to those affected, and whether the public interest is served by its entry.”

If the settlement had been allowed to stand, it would have closed the case. Instead, the lawsuit is likely to last a few more years. The parties could negotiate a new settlement. Otherwise, the court will decide whether Kentucky’s contracting with a faith-based child care organization violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on the establishment of a state religion.

“If this ruling stands up it will be very harmful to children in Kentucky state child care system,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “This is a strong settlement that provides strong protections for children to ensure that they are not religiously proselytized, not coerced to attend religious activities and not discriminated against on the basis of religion.”

Sunrise Children’s Services President Dale Suttles said the group does not proselytize or coerce children into becoming Christians. He said many of the agency’s foster parents are recruited from local churches. If the family goes to church, the child would attend church with the family “like any other child would.” He said the agency’s focus is on “the well-being of every child.”

Kentucky Baptist Convention President Paul Chitwood, who is a foster parent himself and a member of Sunrise’s board of directors, called allegations of religious coercion “unquestionably false.”

“Children in our care have the same choices that kids have at any private provider or family’s care,” he said. “We follow the rules and are glad to do so.”