Baptist Boondoggles: Courts In Kentucky Split On Tax Aid To Religion

It's a sad fact of American life that our federal courts have been increasingly stacked with right-wing judges who are hostile to our fundamental constitutional rights.

Although my beloved home state of Kentucky is perhaps best known for its bourbon, burley and basketball teams, there are also a lot Baptists down there. Some of them support church-state separation; some of them don't.

On Monday, some of the ones who don't won a round in a lawsuit involving public funding of religion. A federal district court ruled that folks challenging tax aid to the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children (KBHC) had no "standing" to bring their case into court.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Judge Charles R. Simpson said the Supreme Court's Hein decision last year makes it much harder for taxpayers to challenge the misuse of their dollars for religious purposes.

The plaintiffs, represented by Americans United, had a strong case. The lawsuit was brought in 1998 when the KBHC fired Alicia Pedreira for no reason whatsoever other than that they found out she is a lesbian. That, they said, violated Baptist doctrine, and her stellar work performance meant nothing.

Baptists are entitled to their doctrines, of course, but they shouldn't be allowed to discriminate and indoctrinate with public funds. And that's just what's happening. The KBHC is heavily funded with public dollars. Yet it feels free to hire and fire employees based on their conformity to Baptist dogma and to impose religion on the vulnerable children in its care.

Baptists used to believe in the separation of church and state as a fundamental tenet of their faith. Those at the KBHC clearly do not. (KBHC recently changed its name to Sunrise Children's Services; one can only wonder if this was done to disguise its religious character and make it easier to cart off more tax dollars.)

A somewhat similar lawsuit in state court last month had a happier ending.

Franklin County Circuit Judge Roger Crittenden ruled March 6 that the state legislature's $11 million gift to a Baptist university violated the state constitution's strict church-state separation provisions.

Ten million was earmarked for a new pharmacy school at the University of the Cumberlands, and $1 million was set aside for scholarships there.

Judge Crittenden said "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."

The plaintiffs in the case 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.

Jason Johnson, a student kicked out of the University of the Cumberlands when school officials learned on his MySpace page that he is gay, hailed the ruling.

"I think that hits the nail on the head," he 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."

Good for Judge Crittenden! It's a sad fact of American life that our federal courts have been increasingly stacked with right-wing judges who are hostile to our fundamental constitutional rights and who are trying to bar the courthouse door to those seeking justice. It's encouraging that a few state judges are willing to stand in the gap.

Some two-thirds of the states have constitutions that are more explicit on church-state separation than the federal constitution. We may have to turn to those documents for protection if a stacked federal judiciary shreds the Bill of Rights.