Americans United has filed a friend-of-the-court brief along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky challenging tax funding of the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Ky.
“The Kentucky Constitution is clear on this matter,” said the Rev. 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.”
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 an 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 Kentucky Fairness Alliance, a statewide gay-rights group, challenged the legislature’s special appropriation of funds for the university after the school expelled a gay student in 2006. The student, Jason Johnson, had disclosed his sexual orientation on a social networking Web site.
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.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.