American Atheists Appeals Ruling Stating Kentucky’s Security is Unattainable Without God

Back in 2006, a Southern Baptist preacher who happens to sit in the Kentucky legislature introduced a law that would require the Kentucky Department of Homeland Security to declare in its training materials that security is unattainable without reliance on “Almighty God.”

American Atheists filed a lawsuit, claiming that the law violated both the U.S. and Kentucky Constitutions. The Franklin Circuit Court in Kentucky (the trial court) agreed with them and ruled that the law was unconstitutional.

Then, the law went to an appeals court. A three-judge panel there reversed the ruling by a vote of 2-1, declaring that the law was just fine by the First Amendment. (The dissenting justice, Chief Judge Shake wrote an opinion that supported the separation of church and state and cited U.S. Supreme Court precedent to that effect.)

That takes us to last month, when American Atheists filed an appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court seeking a rehearing of their challenge to the Kentucky law.

We’re waiting to hear if that appeal will go through.

(Unless you're suspicious of encroaching theocracy, of course. Then just shut up.)

So what is this really all about?

The relevant case law, Lemon v. Kurtzman, created a test to determine whether the law violates the First Amendment prohibition on establishment of religion. If the government action doesn’t have a secular purpose, it’s unconstitutional. If it has the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, it’s unconstitutional. If it results in “excessive government entanglement” with religion, it’s unconstitutional.

With that in mind, it seems pretty obvious to me that the Kentucky law violates the federal Constitution under the current jurisprudence. As far as I can tell, the law loses on all but one point.

The purpose of the law is, according to the lawmakers, to remind everybody that Kentucky is not safe without relying on “Almighty God.” That doesn’t sound even remotely secular to me. Requiring Homeland Security to put references to their god and how powerful he is in the training materials certainly sounds like advancement of religion to me. Moreso, it sounds like indoctrination.

Even though only one of these prongs need be violated in order to render the law unconstitutional, I think we have two in the bag now. The third one is usually a higher bar, and I’m not sure it’s met here.

That’s because excessive entanglement is usually invoked when the government is providing some sort of financial assistance to a religious entity. There was no funding here. But it doesn’t matter. The Lemon test doesn’t care which prong was violated.

Plenty of people who don’t think that we should care about separation of church and state have asked me why we should care about this sort of thing. This case seems more egregious to me than some others, because it actively forces government employees to ingest religious material.

It strikes me as authoritarian. What do you think?

About Carrie

Carrie Clark is a lawyer in Illinois. The opinions herein are that of the author only. Any information in this post is for discussion purposes only, and is not offered as legal advice.

  • http://twitter.com/Goodson Goodson

    Authoritarian is one word. Scary is another.

  • William

    I currently live in Tulsa, OK (arguably the Buckle of the Bible Belt) but will be possibly moving to Kentucky within the next five years. It’s as if I am trading one poison for another. In regards to the charge of authoritarian, I think a strong case could be made.

  • Andrew B.

    It normalizes the phenomenon of religion intruding into secular spaces therefore making it easier for further, more egregious violations to occur.  People tend to think of church-state separation as a wall, but I think it’s more helpful to think of it as a dam, and subtle, mostly inoffensive acts like this are just tiny cracks.  While they themselves don’t allow the dam to be breached, they do weaken the wall making further more egregious violations more likely.

    I had a question, also.  You wrote:

    “Then, the law went to an appeals court. A three-judge panel there reversed the ruling by a vote of 2-1, declaring that the law was just fine by the First Amendment.”

    Does the first amendment really apply to public officials specifically when they are acting as employees of the federal government?  It’s seems as though they’re using one part of the first amendment (free exercise of religion) to trump another part (the establishment clause).  Is that accurate?

    • Carrie

      I’m not sure I totally understand your question, but I’ll give it a shot. Short answer, the First Amendment applies to government actions generally, having been incorporated to apply to state governments as well as federal. As to the second part of your question, the court seems to have justified the law by saying that it doesn’t meet the minimum standard for violating the Establishment Clause. The lawmakers may themselves have said that they are just enjoying their rights of free exercise, but I don’t believe that is what the appeals court used to validate the law. So it’s not really about using Free Exercise v. Establishment in this case, though that’s sometimes true. Let me know if that clears things up.

  • Luc Duval

    Definitely authoritarian.  And Lemon v. Kurtzman FTW, I’ve cited that decision a hundred times.

  • Praedico

    As it me, or does that poster look like it could literally be a prop poster for a dystopian movie about a corrupt, totalitarian government?

    • EJC

      What do you mean “could be”…

      Rome isn’t burning my friend, it is burnt.

    • Lurker111

      Right.  The “Report Suspicious Activity” phrase is about as Third-Reichish as you can get, short of “Is your neighbor an X?  If so, Report Him!”

  • Silo Mowbray

    This is unbelievably insidious on a few levels.

    The most salient one to me is the subtext: “If you’re not a God-fearing Christian, you will never be secure, NOR WILL YOU BE PROTECTED. The security of your person and your family can only be guaranteed by kneeling in front of the Crucifix and giving up 10% of your income.”

    It’s a protection racket, in the worst form.

    • http://profiles.google.com/kelvins273 Kevin Smith

      Not only that, it implies that anyone who doesn’t believe in the Christian god is a traitor because he or she is making the entire state insecure through their nonbelief.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1049978119 Priscilla Evans

    If I had any thoughts that I might like to work for the Kentucky Department of Homeland Security before, I sure wouldn’t want to do it after the 2006 law.  I’d feel like I was going to work for some religious denomination, rather than working to safeguard all citizens of Kentucky.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1049978119 Priscilla Evans

    And didn’t Almighty God get us into this mess where we need a Dept of Homeland Security anyway?   One interpretation of Almighty God’s word vs. another interpretation of Almighty God’s word?  With both sides feeling it’s OK to destroy the people with the OTHER interpretation of Almighty God’s word?

    • http://twitter.com/6uldvnt 6uldvnt

      Oh Man! I wish I could SUPERLIKE this comment. yes, i know, superlike is not a word.

    • Anonymous

      I hereby, officially SUPERLIKE this comment.  Priscilla, you couldn’t have said it better.

  • EJC

    God sure has been good to Kentucky this far, so why the hell not add a few props to the bastard in the laws. I mean, Kentucky receives the second highest rate of meth addiction in the nation, one of the highest teen pregnancy rates, some of the BEST numbers vis-a-vis illiteracy (that is to say, those numbers are HIGH towards the state’s population being a bunch of illiterate boobs), very high divorce rates etc…

    Yes, god has shown its light upon the fair state of Kentucky. I can only imagine the security it will provide when compared to the grace through the above mentioned attributes to the state.

    Oh yes, I forgot too, there is Ken Hamm…

    Kentucky, where X marks the signature.

  • Thegoodman

    The irony of Christians condemning the Middle East and Sharia Law supporting verbiage like this in our own laws is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying.

    As a 29 yr old Atheist I fear I may be moving to Europe before my golden years to avoid being burned at the stake.

    • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

      As a 29 year old atheist I fear I may have to agree with you.

  • Kaydenpat

    Although I am a Christian, I agree that this KY law is ridiculous and must be overturned.  There’s no way that this could be constitutional.  This sounds like something from the Middle East — just substitue Allah for Almighty God.

  • James Tomlinson

    So, where does American atheist go from here?  If the state supreme court doesn’t over turn this decision would it go to a federal court or does it have to go right to the federal supreme court.  I’m just curious about the process.  I’m sure I can Google but Its more fun to ask my friends here!

  • Steve

    I grew up in the great Commonwealth of Kentucky… To expand on, and paraphrase Molly Ivins – the biggest problem with Kentucky Baptists is “we don’t hold them under water long enough.” They never miss an opportunity to ram their religion down everyones’ throats. 

    If God is almighty and all knowing, doesn’t he already know who is a true believer and isn’t he already riding shotgun for them. Surely, any day now… he’ll just float down here with both guns blazing and blast all the evil terrorists (and all those other evil sinners). I’m just gonna’ stand here on one foot and hold my breath.

  • Former Thumper

    I don’t normally say this but, I think american atheists has a case here and I support them entirely in this.

  • Sue Blue

    As if their DOHS doesn’t suck enough already with that Davy Crockett image in the logo…now they’ve gotta throw god into the mess.  Yep, wearing coonskin caps and prayin’ would make me feel real darn secure!  

    I would make the argument that the whole concept of a “Homeland” Security department is authoritarian (fascist).  The god thing just smacks even more of a certain early twentieth-century fascist European regime….Heil Gott!!

    Southern Baptists are like mainstream christianity’s retarded cousin or crazy aunt in the attic.  You can always count on complete disregard for the law, the constitution, common sense or anything remotely sane from them, so this crap doesn’t surprise me.  What does surprise me is that anyone, even in Kentucky, would think this would fly.  They must really think god is going to pull out all the stops to overthrow the law of the land for them.  Idiots. 

  • Christian Demographer

    I am a Christian theologian active in the public sphere.  I consider this an unnecessary and offensive establishment of religion in civil matters.  While OHS civil servants may serve boldly and competently seeking God as their help, it serves no useful purpose for a civil agency to assert this as a guiding principle for multi-faith employees. It is offensive to me as a Christian leader to water down the worship of God in this way.  And these comments reveal the offense to atheist believers.  It seems to violate the freedom / anti-establishment principles of the First Amendment in clear ways.  But I’m even more disappointed that the establishment would waste good energy fighting this … rather than trying to build community & security in constructive ways.      

  • JBlade

    This is why I refuse to leave my native Kentucky.  If I leave, they win. 


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