- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Recent editorials from Kentucky newspapers:


July 25

Lexington Herald-Leader on protecting foster children’s religious freedom:

The Bevin administration is re-embroiling the state in a court fight that was triggered 18 years ago when Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children fired an employee because she posed with her lesbian partner in a photo exhibit at the state fair.

The employee’s discrimination complaint was dismissed early on. But the state, the Baptist-supported agency that was renamed Sunrise Children’s Services and three Kentucky taxpayer plaintiffs have been arguing ever since in federal court about how to safeguard children in taxpayer-supported foster care from religious coercion and proselytizing.

Without admitting or alleging any wrongdoing, the state in 2014 agreed to guidelines which most people will consider sensible and humane.

As summarized by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, the terms agreed to by the state “require providers to inform a child and the child’s parents of a foster home’s religious affiliation, to provide children with opportunities to go to the church of their choice, and to provide non-religious alternatives to religious activities. Providers must also agree not to discriminate against children on the basis of religion, coerce children to engage in religious activity or attempt to convert children to a new religion. Further, when children leave their care, providers must give them an exit survey that asks, among other things, whether the provider tried to convert the child to a new religion.”

The agreement did not preclude adults from talking to children about spiritual concerns or restrict children from praying or participating in religious activities.

Sunrise, which receives two-thirds of its revenue from state contracts and is a key part of caring for Kentucky’s neglected and abused children, has fought the plaintiffs to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has twice declined to hear the case. The state also unsuccessfully asked the Supreme Court to throw out the lawsuit on grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing.

Sunrise is fighting the settlement reached in 2014 with the Beshear administration. And now the Bevin administration is asking U.S. District Judge Charles Simpson in Louisville to throw out the agreement. (The reason the settlement isn’t already final: Sunrise won a partial victory at the appeals level resulting in some revisions sought by the Baptist agency.)

Interestingly, Sunrise insists it has never proselytized young people in its care, despite testimony from some former clients that they were pressured to convert to Christianity. Sunrise argues that the accusation has harmed its reputation. But it has not objected to the proposed guidelines for protecting children from religious coercion.

What both Sunrise and now the Bevin administration most object to is that the lawyers for the plaintiffs - the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State - would have a role in monitoring compliance with the guidelines, under terms of the proposed settlement.

However, the plaintiffs’ lawyers would have only limited power. They could point out to state officials any coercion revealed by client exit interviews conducted by the foster-care agencies. (The client names would be redacted.) If unsatisfied with the state’s response, the plaintiffs could appeal to the judge, who would have the ultimate authority.

Sunrise, and apparently the Bevin administration, fear the settlement would become a weapon for harassing religiously-affiliated agencies, but that fear is purely hypothetical and the legal arguments technical.

The overriding concern should be assuring that the children in state care, already vulnerable and traumatized, are respected and protected from pressure or coercion.

The Supreme Court has long held that because teachers and administrators at public schools have near total authority over their students, indoctrinating them in religion violates constitutional protections against state-imposed religion. That’s why the court has said it’s OK to pray before a city council meeting, where the participants are adults, but unconstitutional before a public school sporting event.

If religiously-affiliated agencies can’t agree to provide that same level of protection to children in their care, they have an obvious recourse: Stop accepting taxpayer funding and become self-supporting.

It’s a shame that resources that could have gone into improving services for Kentucky children will instead go into prolonging this legal battle.




July 21

The (Ashland) Daily Independent on a proposed pawn shop law:

Boyd County Commonwealth’s Attorney David Justice is proposing a state law he thinks will make it more difficult for thieves to dispose of their stolen property at pawn shops. While we do not pretend to be experts on how pawn shops operate, the proposals of the county’s chief prosecutor sound promising and deserve serious consideration by the Kentucky General Assembly.

Under current state law, pawnbrokers in Kentucky are required to hold jewelry and other goods received for 90 days. That restriction does not apply, however, if the pawn shops purchase the items instead of using the property as collateral on loans. In that case, the pawnbroker has no obligation to return the property upon repayment of the loan as no money was borrowed. The transaction is treated as a sale.

“Therein lies the problem,” Justice said.

When personal items are reported stolen, pawn shops are often the first place police look. Pawnbrokers must upload details about each item received and the customer to LeadsOnline, a website frequented by police investigators.

“If the stolen item was pawned, it’s usually still there,” Justice said. “But when pawn shops buy an item, like gold jewelry, they don’t have to hold it. They can just pound it up into gold and send it off to the broker, and there’s no chance the victim will get it back.”

Small-town pawn shops, like the five in Ashland, have long engaged in a symbiotic relationship with the community. The businesses offer local residents a chance to secure a loan by using personal items as collateral. Justice said pawn shops provide a service for people, especially the poor.

But in impoverished regions like central Appalachia, where drug addiction is rampant and can lead to desperation, some residents resort to theft. Stolen goods sometimes appear in pawn shops a day after the crime is committed.

Jewelry is easily the most common items stolen and taken to pawn shops.

Justice said he’s worked “hundreds” of cases involving addicts who have stolen from family members, churches and stores before selling the items of high value to flea markets and pawn shops.

“What happens too often is when stolen jewelry is taken at a pawn shop, thieves don’t usually pawn it, they sell it,” Justice said.

Cher Kiser, general manager of Tri- State Pawn & Jewelry in Ashland, said the frequency at which the shop inadvertently buys or pawns stolen items varies.

“It goes in phases,” Kiser said. “Sometimes, police officers might call us about a stolen item two or three times in one week. But if a crime happens on Sunday and (the suspect) pawns it here on Monday, the police will usually find it on LeadsOnline.”

Tri-State Pawn buys, sells and pawns items rapidly. The business also owns three stores in West Virginia. When it relates to receiving gold or gold jewelry, Kiser said the Ashland shop often abides by the same 10-day holding policy its stores in West Virginia are required to follow.

Justice said that policy isn’t always practiced by any of the pawn shops in Ashland, because there’s no law to enforce it. The lack of state law or ordinance means pawn shops and victims of theft face a challenge when it comes to locating stolen property.

“All five pawn shops in Ashland operate honorably. But everyone knows we have a drug problem in this county. People become so dependent, they’ll beg, borrow or steal,” Justice said.

Once pawnbrokers in Kentucky buy an item, like gold jewelry, they can legally ship the item to a third party for resale immediately.

In the pawn shop business, gold is a valuable asset.

“Some days I hold gold for a day, other times I might have it for a week or two,” Dennis Cade, owner of D & D Pawn and Jewelry, said. “If the gold has diamonds in it, I can either take them out or pay a refinery to take them out first.”

Justice suggested a rule to require pawn shops to hold jewelry for 14 to 30 days. Kiser and Cade said their businesses would be in favor of stricter regulation.

Whether it’s passed on a state level or as a city ordinance, “it would be a great service for the citizens of this community,” Justice said. “It’s an issue that could be easily remedied.”

A law on any level will have some value, but to be most effective, the changes proposed by Justice need to be approved by the General Assembly and not just by a city council or fiscal court.

Justice must first convince a legislator to sponsor a bill containing the changes he proposes. That’s the first step in turning a good idea into a law.




July 17

Kentucky New Era on U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield:

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield’s work on legislation to ban the abusive practice known as “soring” in the Tennessee walking horse industry is a position we have always supported. For too many years, trainers and owners have used chemicals to blister the flesh of countless walking horses so they would achieve a high-stepping gait that makes them more competitive on show circuits. Whitfield fought to stop the abuse when others were willing to look the other way.

But the Kentucky Republican’s advocacy for an issue backed by the Humane Society of the United States also raised ethical and procedural concerns because the congressman’s wife, Connie Whitfield, became a lobbyist for the national organization in 2011.

On Thursday, the House Ethics Committee found Whitfield violated House rules because he allowed his wife to lobby his staff members on legislation he sponsored. Although the committee’s report says the members believed Whitfield’s actions were unintentional, it still condemned the congressman for allowing special privileges to his wife.

In response to the committee’s report, Whitfield said he did not realize the rules about contact between his wife and his staff changed after she registered as a Washington lobbyist.

There’s a big problem with that explanation. Whitfield, an attorney, has served in the House of Representatives since 1995. He’s not a rookie. He had an obligation to know the House rules concerning lobbyists - especially when his wife registered as a lobbyist.

To his credit, Whitfield, who is retiring at the end of this year, accepted the committee’s ruling.

Even though Whitfield and his wife are widely respected for their work on animal welfare, it’s important to remember that members of Congress shouldn’t ignore potential conflicts of interest that rise out of special treatment for spouses and close relatives.

If the issue had been something like military spending and the congressman’s wife was a lobbyist for a weapons contractor, the conversation about a conflict of interest would be different.

The stakes weren’t as serious on the issue involving equine abuse because the congressman did not receive any financial gains through the legislation and because most reasonable people recognize that it is abusive to sore walking horses. But the rules for lobbying must be followed in all scenarios. It can be a slippery slope when a member of Congress is married to a lobbyist - so the rules must be known and respected.

With 22 years in the House, Whitfield should have recognized that his wife’s status as a lobbyist was a potential problem.



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