For God and Kentucky

JISHOU, HUNAN — I used to live in Kentucky. It’s a beautiful state, full of great people, but afflicted with legislators who are mostly terminally stupid.

In that, I suppose, the Bluegrass State is not unique. There’s a whole lotta stupid goin’ on. (Take Zimbabwe, for example.)

Kentucky’s latest contribution to stupidity was the inclusion of “Almighty God” in two state statutes a few years back dealing with the state’s homeland security. Someone finally caught wind of the terminology and has filed suit in state court to have the offending laws rewritten.

The someone is the group, American Atheists. So you can already predict how the religious right and right-wing radioheads will react: “Godless atheists are trying to destroy our Christian nation! Blah blah blah …!”

I mean, the American Atheists have a point, but why couldn’t the plaintiffs been someone less obvious a target for right-wing vitriol, like maybe the Presbyterians headquartered in Louisville?

The right-wing blather will only obscure the real issue, which I hope the courts will settle quickly. Our laws cannot invoke God without running afoul of the US Constitution, specifically this part:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

State legislation must abide by the US Constitution, so the Kentucky laws in question are on pretty shaky legal ground.

Here’s one of the two contested statutes, which creates the office of homeland security in Kentucky.

39G.010 Kentucky Office of Homeland Security executive director — Duties —
Delegation of duties — Notification of disaster or emergency.
(1) The Kentucky Office of Homeland Security shall be
attached to the Office of the Governor and shall be
headed by an executive director appointed by the
(2) The executive director shall:
(a) Publicize the findings of the General Assembly
stressing the dependence on Almighty God as being
vital to the security of the Commonwealth by
including the provisions of KRS 39A.285(3) in its
agency training and educational materials. The
executive director shall also be responsible for
prominently displaying a permanent plaque at the
entrance to the state’s Emergency Operations Center
stating the text of KRS 39A.285(3);

The second, (KRS 39A/285(3)), says this:

39A.285 Legislative findings.
The General Assembly hereby finds that:
(1) No government by itself can guarantee perfect security from acts of war or
(2) The security and well-being of the public depend not just on government, but rest in
large measure upon individual citizens of the Commonwealth and their level of
understanding, preparation, and vigilance.
(3) The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from
reliance upon Almighty God as set forth in the public speeches and proclamations
of American Presidents, including Abraham Lincoln’s historic March 30, 1863,
Presidential Proclamation urging Americans to pray and fast during one of the most
dangerous hours in American history, and the text of President John F. Kennedy’s
November 22, 1963, national security speech which concluded: “For as was written
long ago: ‘Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’ ”
Effective: March 28, 2002
History: Created 2002 Ky. Acts ch. 82, sec. 2, effective March 28, 2002.

OK. Let’s test your civics knowledge. Do either of those laws appear to establish a state religion? Do they appear to infringe on anyone’s free exercise of religion? You have two minutes …

dum de dum de dum …

Times up! If you answered yes to both questions, congratulations! You’re not stupid. If answered no to both, or either, you need to think more carefully than you have so far.

The bedrock of the US legal system, the US Constitution, has no mention of God or the Divine in it anywhere. The overwhelming majority of laws in the USA also omit reference to God and the Divine, and if they do, they do not impose legal consequences on the populace governed by those laws.

The Pledge of Allegiance, for example, has contained the words “under God” since 1954. There is no law, however, that requires everyone to recite the Pledge in its entirety, or at all, and none that lays down penalties for refusing to comply with a demand to recite it. [See this Supreme Court decision for details.]

Our currency and many government buildings state “In God We Trust,” yet there is no law requiring everyone to trust in God, to attend church, to believe in God, or for that matter, to spend money.

The Kentucky statute refers to public speeches and proclamations by presidents which invoke the Almighty, perhaps trying to use such as precedent. They are not legal precedents; they aren’t laws. When Lincoln told the population to pray and fast, there were no jack-booted security forces ready to lock up anyone who decided to take a bite out of an apple that day.

The other statute requires the executive director to “publicize the findings of the General Assembly
stressing the dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the Commonwealth.” Well, what if he or she doesn’t agree? (Yes, I know, in such a case they wouldn’t likely be holding the job, particularly if Ernie Fletcher were still in office, but forget that for now.) Even a churchgoer should be a little reticent to depend on God as the first line of defense for the state. God has a long track record of being capricious, after all.

This clause clearly imposes a legal requirement on the staff of the homeland security office to acknowledge both the existence of God and His/Her/Its role on protecting all those wonderful Kentuckians. That’s a little like establishing a government-imposed religion, which the Founding Fathers expressly wanted to avoid. (Recall that many Europeans came to the American colonies to escape state religions.)

The First Amendment ensures that Americans are free to believe in God, or not, and to beseech God to protect them, or not. No laws specify how they should worship, or when, or why, or where, or to whom or what.

And if those laws do make such requirements, as the Kentucky statutes do, they are unconstitutional.

And stupid.

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