The Kentucky Supreme Court handed down an important church-state decision yesterday – one that ended in a victory for Americans United and our allies.
The court ruled that $10 million in state funds could not be awarded to the University of the Cumberlands (UC), a school affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention. In a 5-2 decision, the court said awarding government funds to a religious institution violates the Kentucky Constitution’s clear ban on tax aid to “any church, sectarian or denominational school.”
“If Kentucky needs to expand the opportunities for pharmacy school education within the commonwealth, the Kentucky General Assembly may most certainly address that pressing public need, but not by appropriating public funds to an educational institution that is religiously affiliated,” wrote Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson on behalf of the court majority.
The state legislature, pushed by Senate President David Williams, a UC graduate, tacked on the funding to the 2006-08 state budget in order for UC to build a new pharmacy school. Legislators threw in an additional $1 million to fund a scholarship program.
The religious school subsidies were successfully challenged by the Fairness Alliance, the Jefferson County Teachers Association and two clergy. Forces defending the grant to UC included the Alliance Defense Fund and the Christian Legal Society.
Americans United, noting that the government should never use public money to fund religion or any particular religious belief, filed a friend-of-the-court-brief in University of the Cumberlands v. Pennybacker, and the Rev. Paul Simmons, a Baptist minister and president of AU’s Louisville chapter, was one of the plaintiffs. (Simmons has also served as president of the Americans United Board of Trustees.)
“Taxpayers should never be forced to support churches or church schools,” Simmons told the Associated Press, after learning of the court ruling. “Religion is at its best when supported by the voluntary donations of the faithful, not politically motivated government handouts.”
This Kentucky decision is especially important because 37 other states feature similar “no aid” provisions in their state constitutions.
We’re happy to see this court take a firm stand for separation of church and state. Let’s hope this wise decision resonates across the country.