A foster care provider has been sued for reportedly discriminating against an East Bernstadt couple who refused to avoid church services where snakes are present.

It’s the second time in a month the issue of snake handling has surfaced in Laurel County courts.

Jason and Tammy Barrett became licensed foster care parents with Benchmark Family Services Inc., which does business as Lifeway for Youth Kentucky, Inc., in October 2005.

From that time until Dec. 2006, attorney Melissa Dixon said the Barretts housed about six foster children “off and on.”

During a home visit Nov. 14, 2006, the Barretts’ complaint states they were asked by a Lifeway case manager if they practiced the “Holiness faith.” When the Barretts said they did, the case manager asked if they attended a church “where reptiles were used, handled or displayed.”

The Barretts reportedly said they had in the past, but no longer did.

Dixon said the Barretts have declined to comment on the complaint or reveal where they go to church.

The following day, the Barretts were asked to sign an agreement asking them not to attend services where snakes were handled. The Barretts reviewed the agreement and, after some deliberation, refused to sign it.

The Barretts “believed that the agreement would prohibit them from attending religious services of their choice,” the complaint states.

On Nov. 16, Jason Barrett told a representative of Lifeway for Youth of his and Tammy’s decision. In answer, they were allegedly asked if they would sign an agreement that stated they would not take any foster children to religious services where snakes are handled.

The Barretts reportedly agreed to do so.

However, on Nov. 28 the Barretts were apparently notified their foster care license would be revoked unless they signed the original agreement.

They were allegedly later told their license was not being revoked based on their qualifications or their actions as foster parents. Instead, the decision was “based on a news report of a woman in London, Ky., who had recently died as the result of a snake bite received while attending religious services where reptiles were used, handled or displayed,” the complaint states.

The news report refers to the death of Linda Long who died from a snake bite on her cheek Nov. 5, 2006. The members of East London Holiness Church were reportedly handling snakes as part of their church service when the incident happened.

On Dec. 1, 2006 all foster children in the Barretts’ care was taken from their home.

Lifeway for Youth representative Spencer Wahl had no comment on the law suit, saying Lifeway has not received a copy of it.

“I’m going to wait until I’ve received a copy of whatever was filed,” he said.

The Barretts have sued Benchmark, nine of its employees and the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Department of Health and Human Services and are seeking damages and attorneys fees for having their First and 14th Amendment rights violated.

Dixon provided a written statement on their behalf.

“Lifeway for Youth Inc. was acting as a state agent in licensing foster families and placing children in foster homes within their network,” the statement said. “As a state agent, Lifeway is subject to the United States Constitution. ... By revoking Mr. and Mrs. Barrett’s foster care license because they may or may not attend a religious service where reptiles are handled, displayed or used, even when Mr. and Mrs. Barrett were willing to promise not to take any foster children in their care to such services, Lifeway for Youth ... violated Mr. and Mrs. Barrett’s constitutional rights. When a governmental actor takes steps that violate the Constitution, it is often necessary to seek judicial relief.”

Despite the suit, Dixon said the Barretts have become licensed foster parents with Affinity Care, based in Corbin. Dixon thinks the Barretts have foster children in their care.

In Kentucky snake handling is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of no less than $50 and not to exceed $100.

Staff writer Tara Kaprowy can be reached by e-mail at tkaprowy@sentinel-echo. com.


• Snake handling is a religious ritual in a small number of Christian churches in the U.S., usually characterized as rural and Holiness. Practitioners quote the Bible to support the practice, especially: “And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (Mark 16:17-18).

• The First Amend-ment prohibits the federal legislature from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion” or that prohibit free exercise of religion, laws that infringe the freedom of speech, infringe the freedom of the press, limit the right to assemble peaceably, or limit the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

• The Fourteenth Amendment contains the “due process”, “equal protection” and “citizenship” clauses.

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