FRANKFORT, Ky. (ABP) — The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled April 22 that Baptist-affiliated University of the Cumberlands cannot use $10 million of taxpayer money to build a pharmacy school.
The high court said the funds, appropriated by the Kentucky General Assembly in 2006, violate the state constitution's prohibition on public funding of "any church, sectarian or denominational school." In a divided decision, justices also ruled that a $1 million scholarship program for students at the school violated a section of the constitution that says "where a general law can be made applicable, no special law shall be enacted."
Formerly called Cumberland College, the University of the Cumberlands is affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Founded by Baptist ministers in 1889, the school has historically served students primarily from the collective mountain regions of Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio and Alabama traditionally known as Appalachia.
State lawmakers appropriated funds to begin a school of pharmacy there so that students from the area wouldn't have to travel so far to get a pharmacological education. Legislators reasoned the action would also make it more likely they would remain close to home to pursue their careers.
Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson, however, said in the court opinion that if Kentucky needs to expand the opportunities for pharmacy school education, the General Assembly "may most certainly address that pressing public need, but not by appropriating public funds to an educational institution that is religiously affiliated."
Justices rejected an argument by university lawyers that the state constitution ban violates the free-exercise and free-speech clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They also rejected a defense argument that the law is Kentucky's version of "Blaine Amendments," constitutional provisions passed in several states in the 1800s restricting government aid to "sectarian" schools prompted by anti-Catholic bigotry that was a recurring theme of politics of the time.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Bill Cunningham sought to dispel "any abiding notion" that the court was "taking a legalistic swipe at religion."
"Nothing could be further from the truth," Cunningham wrote. "Decisions like that endorsed by our majority here today have paved the way for religion to grow and prosper in this land of the free."
Cunningham called it a "grand irony" that the case involved a Baptist-supported college seeking state support for a pharmacy school.
"Separation of church and state has been an axiom of the Baptists for centuries," he said. "The early Baptists, at least, believed that church and state are mutually beneficial only if they remain distinct and separate in the normal affairs of life."
Paul Simmons, president of the Louisville, Ky., chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the ruling "will likely be viewed as a landmark decision upholding long-standing provisions of the Kentucky constitution" that draw a firm line between funding for secular and religious groups.
"We at Americans United are delighted that the Supreme Court has affirmed the constitutional governance of the Commonwealth and drawn attention to an abuse of power within our legislative ranks," said Simmons, an ordained Baptist minister and former professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Simmons, who was a plaintiff in the case, said he hoped the ruling would help raise awareness among all Kentuckians about the importance of religious liberty and the separation of church and state. "Doing religious things publicly is one thing," he said. "Doing something religious with public funding or to promote religion as such is unconstitutional."
University officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.