Pious Pandering: Ky. Politicians Are Using Religion To Appeal To Voters

Is being a foe of church-state separation a prerequisite to being elected in Kentucky? How else can you explain all the work Kentucky government officials have done in the past two months to chip away at the church-state wall?

Yesterday, in the latest anti-separation move, the Kentucky Senate passed a measure that would mandate creation of an official Bible curriculum for Kentucky’s public schools.

SB 56, which sailed through 34-1, directs the Kentucky Board of Education to create guidelines for a social studies elective on the Bible. (Kudos to Sen. Kathy Stein, a former AU National Advisory Council member and the lone vote against the measure!)

State Sen. Joe Bowen introduced the bill this year. Last year, the same measure passed the Senate, but failed in the House – a scenario that (hopefully) may repeat itself this year.

“No doubt about it, the most important book ever written, and obviously, it's had so much influence on our society and all of Western civilization," Bowen said of the reason why he wants to ensure Kentucky students have a chance to learn about the Bible.

The courts have deemed that courses on the Bible may be taught in public schools, so long as they are taught from an academic perspective, not as a way to indoctrinate.

Bowen claims SB 56 is merely providing a roadmap for how teachers can successfully teach these courses. The measure states the board should create guidelines for a course on the Bible’s influence on “literature, art, music, mores, oratory and public policy.” It mandates that the course maintain “religious neutrality” and respect “the diverse religious views of students.”

But is this measure really about academics and “religious neutrality?” And what does Bowen mean when he intimates that the Bible has a role in “public policy?”

Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, who voted for the measure last year, took a “closer look” this year before deciding not to cast a vote at all. He said the legislation includes a provision that permits students to use their own texts for the course. That “throws academic credibility out the window,” he noted.

State. Rep. Reggie Meeks also criticized the Senate for pandering to conservative Christian voters.

"It's like waving meat in front of a dog, OK? You give them what they want," Meeks told a local news station.

You give them what they want – even if it comes at the Constitution’s expense – and the expense of religious minorities and nonbelievers who may not want their public schools promoting one faith’s sacred scriptures.

Gov. Steve Beshear also seems eager to cater to religious voters. He recently apologized to self-anointed “chaplain to the state capitol” Lee Watts for mistakenly denying Watts’ request to place a display in the state capitol of religious phrases wrenched from their original contexts in historical and governmental documents.

(Although referred to by both politicians and the media as a “legislative chaplain,” Watts is nothing of the kind. In fact, he’s just another Religious Right activist doing everything in his power to usher in a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. His “God and Country Ministry” says America was “founded as a Christian nation, and she can be again, but it will take a new generation of patriots.”)

Initially, State Curator David Buchta, head of the Kentucky Division of Historic Properties, made the right call and denied Watts’ requests based on concerns about church-state separation. But Beshear’s office soon stepped in.

“We are disappointed in this misunderstanding,” said Kerri Richardson, a spokeswoman for Beshear. “We have advised Chaplain Watts that Mr. Buchta was incorrect, and the governor’s office is working with Chaplain Watts to post historical documents in the tunnel.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Kentucky legislators have also introduced an anti-evolution bill this session, and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has unveiled a new standard-issue license plate with the words, “In God We Trust.”

Beshear has also voiced his strong support for the building of a creationist theme park featuring a full-scale replica of Noah’s ark – and lots of fundamentalist proselytizing. He has promised developers tax incentives to build in the Bluegrass State.

It’s clear Kentucky needs help. If you live in the Commonwealth, write to your state legislators and Gov. Beshear and let them know you want a strong wall between separation of church and state. The state has a lot of problems that need addressing; elected officials ought to focus on those, not meddling in religion.