Kentucky Constitution Bars Tax Aid To Baptist University, State Court Rules

A state court in Kentucky has ruled that an $11 million appropriation to a Baptist university violates the state constitution.

In striking down the tax aid, Franklin County Circuit Judge Roger Crittenden ruled “there is no question that the appropriation…is a direct payment to a non-public religious school for educational purpose” and noted that “this type of direct expenditure is not permitted by the Constitution of Kentucky.”

Kentucky legislators earmarked $10 million for a new pharmacy school at the University of the Cumberlands and an additional $1 million for scholarships. No funds were dispersed while the case was in the courts.

The plaintiffs included the Rev. Paul Simmons, a Baptist minister (and president of Americans United), the Rev. Albert M. Pennybacker of the Interfaith Alliance, the Jefferson County Teachers Association and the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, a gay rights group.

Gay rights groups got interested in the case when it was reported that Jason Johnson, a student at the school, was kicked out after university officials learned through his MySpace page that he is gay.

Johnson praised the judge’s ruling.

“I think that hits the nail on the head,” Johnson told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “My stance all along has been that while religious institutions have the right to hold any beliefs they wish, when it comes to taking public money, we have to have a much broader mind, and that’s the way the judge ruled.”

Crittenden did not directly address Johnson’s claim of discrimination in his ruling.

“This court,” he wrote, “does not need to decide this issue to reach a decision in this case, but this is exactly the ‘entanglement’ between government interests and religious institutions that the Kentucky Constitution prohibits.”

Another case in Kentucky challenging tax funding of a religious institution has not fared as well. A federal district court ruled that taxpayers challenging public aid to the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children (KBHC) have no “standing” to bring their case into court.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Judge Charles R. Simpson said a U.S. Supreme Court decision from last year, Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, makes it much harder for taxpayers to challenge the use of tax dollars for religious purposes.

The plaintiffs, represented by Americans United and the Kentucky ACLU, brought the legal challenge in 1998 when officials at the KBHC fired Alicia Pedreira after finding out she is a lesbian. Officials at the home argued that Pedreira’s lifestyle conflicted with Baptist doctrine.

The federal court had earlier dismissed Pedreira’s claim but allowed the challenge to tax funding of the Baptist institution to go forward.