Kentucky Baptist School Should Not Get Millions In State Aid, Argues AU

The Supreme Court of Kentucky should strike down a $10 million state appropriation for a construction project at a Baptist university, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Americans United and the Kentucky ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief challenging tax funding of the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Ky.

“The Kentucky Constitution is clear on this matter,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Tax money may not be used to subsidize religious schools. We expect the court to uphold that important principle.”

The legal dust-up started after a state legislator secured $10 million for the construction of a pharmacy school at the university and an additional $1 million to pay for scholarships.

Opponents said public money should not go to a religious institution that imposes dogma on students and staff.

Special Judge Roger Crittenden of Franklin County ruled against the appropriation in March of 2008. Crittenden declared that the aid for construction of a pharmacy school building and the additional $1 million for scholarships was “a direct payment to a non-public religious school for educational purposes,” adding this type of state assistance “is not permitted by the constitution of Kentucky.”

Section 5 of the state constitution bars residents from being compelled to support religion and bans the state from showing preference to any denomination over others. Section 189 bans tax aid to “any church, sectarian or denominational school.”

The proposed government aid became a big issue in the state after the Baptist school summarily expelled a gay student enrolled there. Jason Johnson had disclosed his sexual orientation on a social networking Web site.

The Kentucky Fairness Alliance, a statewide gay rights group, challenged the legislature’s special appropriation of funds in court after learning about Johnson’s expulsion.

In their amicus brief, Americans United and the ACLU urge the Supreme Court of Kentucky to uphold the lower court ruling and strike down the aid.

The brief, filed March 31, traces the development of church-state separation in the United States and examines how that principle is protected in the Kentucky Constitution.

“This Commonwealth, its people, and their respective religious denominations and houses of worship have been well served by the Kentucky Constitution’s rigorous protections for freedom of conscience,” asserts the brief. “Those essential safeguards should not now be jettisoned, as the challenged appropriations here contemplate.

“No matter how laudatory in the short run the legislature’s objectives might be,” the brief continues, “they cannot justify the degrading effect upon both faith and civil society that results from having religious institutions compete in the political arena for public dollars and public favor.”

Dr. Paul D. Simmons, a Baptist minister and president of the Americans United Board of Trustees, is among the plaintiffs in the University of the Cumberlands v. Pennybacker, Beshear, and McGaha lawsuit. Other plaintiffs include the Jefferson County Teachers Association and Christina Gilgor, executive director of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance.