FRANKFORT, Ky. — A state judge has ruled that Kentucky cannot legally depend on God to keep its citizens safe.
Franklin County Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate ruled Aug. 26 a 2006 amendment to a law establishing the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security that declared “the safety and security of the commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God” an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
Attorneys for the Commonwealth of Kentucky argued that all three branches of government have acknowledged the role of religion in public life for more than 200 years and that removing them would create “a wholly secular society completely divorced from religion.”
Wingate said both the federal and Kentucky constitutions “permit a passing reference to Almighty God nestled in the middle” of legal statutes but the law in question “is more than an ephemeral general reference to God.” Rather, he said, the statute “places an affirmative duty to rely on Almighty God for the protection of the Commonwealth.”
That, the judge ruled, made the Kentucky law “exceptional among thousands of others” and transgressed the First Amendment’s requirement that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
“Even assuming that most of this nation’s citizens have historically depended upon God by choice for their protection, this does not give the General Assembly the right to force citizens to do so now,” Wingate ruled. “That is the very reason the Establishment Clause was created; to protect the minority from the oppression of the majority.”
In the lawsuit challenging the law’s constitutionality, American Atheists, Inc., claimed the law constituted an attempt to “establish religion, endorse belief over non-belief, set up a religious test, (and) indoctrinate Kentucky citizens and state employees in theistic religious beliefs.”
The group said the law would “diminish the civil rights, privileges or capacities of atheists and others who do not believe in a god, or who believe in a different god or gods than the presumed supernatural entity unconstitutionally endorsed by the legislation.”
State Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville, a Southern Baptist minister who slipped the “Almighty God” language into a homeland security bill three years ago, told the Lexington Herald-Leader he was unhappy with the judge’s ruling.
Riner, pastor of Christ is King Baptist Church in Louisville, said the law did not mandate that Kentuckians depend on God for their safety but simply acknowledged that government without God cannot protect its citizens.
“The decision would have shocked and disappointed Thomas Jefferson, who penned the words that the General Assembly paraphrased in this legislation,” Riner said.
Edwin Kagin, national legal director of American Atheists, disagreed. In a blog on the group’s website, Kagin called the ruling a win for atheists.
“I think Thomas Jefferson would have been pleased,” Kagin said.
Judge Wingate said he did not subscribe to the atheist group’s belief that the law was an attempt to “Christianize” Kentucky, but he did describe it as “baffling that Christians would seek government endorsement of their respective religion and give a secular government an opportunity to taint an unadulterated church.”
“The Commonwealth’s history does not exclude God from the statutes, but it hasn’t ever permitted the General Assembly to demand that its citizens depend on Almighty God,” Wingate said in his ruling.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.)