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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

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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."

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