December 2019 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R), who frequently promoted Christian nationalist causes while in office, was defeated in his bid for a second term Nov. 5.

Bevin lost to Democrat Andy Be­shear in a close race, with fewer than 5,200 votes separating the two. Initially, Bevin refused to concede, insisting that the race was too close to call, but on Nov. 14, admitted he had lost.

Days before the election, President Donald Trump traveled to Kentucky for a rally and begged voters to reelect Bevin, but to no avail. Bevin’s loss was interpreted as a blow against Trump.

Bevin, who was elected in 2015, frequently pursued a Religious Right agenda while in office. On its “Wall of Separation” blog, Americans United listed some of Bevin’s most prominent attacks on church-state separation.  

They include:

• During his 2015 race, Bevin lauded law-breaking Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, as “an inspiration ... to the children of America” and vowed to help her if elected. Once in office, Bevin issued an order removing county clerks’ signatures from marriage licenses, an act Davis’s attorney called a “great Christmas present for Kim Davis.” (Rowan County voters had other ideas and booted Davis from office in 2018, but not before her actions cost Kentucky taxpayers more than $200,000 in legal fees.)

• In the wake of the horrific violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, Bevin suggested that further incidents could be avoided if the nation would base public school curricula on the Bible. 

“When you go back a couple hundred years, in most instances, the only textbooks that were actually in our public schools were the Bible,” Bevin told a radio talk show host. “The more we’ve removed any sense of spiritual obligation or moral higher authority … the more we’ve removed things that are biblically taught from society, the more we’ve seen the kind of mayhem that we were just discussing.”

• Bevin in 2017 signed legislation encouraging public schools to offer Bible classes. Americans United expressed concern, noting that the bill lacked provisions to ensure that the classes would be taught in a truly objective fashion. Bevin also signed a bill that AU said could lead to student groups in public schools discriminating against LGBTQ students and others in the name of religion.

Americans United had good reason to be suspicious of Bevin’s motives. In October, he made a video urging public school students to take part in “Bring Your Bible to School Day,” an annual event sponsored by Focus on the Family. He also issued several proclamations promoting official days of prayer and issued statements de­claring both 2016 and 2017 the “Year of the Bible” in Kentucky. In addition, he signed a law requiring all public schools in the state to post “In God We Trust” signs.

• Meeting with conservative pastors in the state shortly before the 2016 presidential election, Bevin was caught on tape urging them to break the law by endorsing candidates from the pulpit. Federal law prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits from intervening in partisan elections, but the governor was dismissive of the law. (Bevin held a similar meeting with far-right pastors shortly before this year’s election, but attendees were carefully screened and reporters were not allowed to attend, so no one knows what he told them this time.)

• Bevin intervened in a lawsuit brought by Americans United on behalf of a Kentucky woman who was fired from a taxpayer-funded Baptist youth home because she’s a lesbian. The suit also challenged the home’s policy of subjecting children to unwanted proselytism. A settlement was reached in the long-running case, but Bevin ordered state officials to reject it and litigation continues to drag on as a result.

• When Louisville residents expressed concern over a wave of violent crime, Bevin unveiled no policy proposals to deal with it. Instead, he urged pastors in the community to pray more: “Take a 10-block span, walk corner to corner, and pray with the community two to three times a week during the next year,” he declared. “That’s it. Pretty unsophisticated, pretty uncomplicated, pretty basic, but I truly believe we’re going to see a difference in our city.” (Religious leaders noted that they were already praying, but said they could use some concrete forms of help.)

• Bevin was notorious for being hostile to public education and has repeatedly insulted public school teachers in the state. He’s a fan of private school vouchers and welcomed U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to the state in the spring of 2017 to laud her multi-billion-dollar federal voucher scheme.

• Bevin intervened to help creationist Ken Ham get taxpayer money to build his infamous “Ark Park” in the state. After the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority decided not to give a package of tax incentives to the park (noting that Ham would use the government money to discriminate by hiring fundamentalist Christians only), Ham sued in federal court, charging that he was being discriminated against. In a misguided ruling, a federal judge agreed with him. Americans United’s attorneys believed that decision would have been vulnerable on appeal, but that never happened because Bevin ordered an end to the legal action. The result was millions in public money flowing to an evangelistic enterprise. Bevin later tweeted photos of himself hanging out at the park with Ham.

Concluded Americans United, “During his time in office, Bevin repeatedly assailed religious diversity, equality and church-state separation. He won’t be missed.”

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