Sunday, October 30, 2011

Kentucky, Homeland Security, and... God?

The state of Kentucky has been at the center of many legal battles involving religious issues over the years. Recently, Kentucky has made the news with a case involving Kentucky’s Office of Homeland Security and the role that the establishment clause plays in our legal system.

On October 23, 2011, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in a split decision that the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security has the right to publicly declare a dependence on "Almighty God" as being vital for the security of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Two important cases in Kentucky led this most recent case, both involving religion and the establishment clause. The first was a legislative finding in 2002 that claimed the security of the commonwealth cannot be achieved without reliance upon Almighty God. The second was an act from 2006 that required the executive director of the Office of Homeland Security to publicize a “dependence on Almighty God” in various training and educational materials. The act also allowed a Bible verse to be displayed on a plaque located at the entrance of the department’s emergency operations center. The verse on the plaque reads: "Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain."

This October the court ruled in a split decision that 1) the Homeland Security director is not required to believe in an "Almighty God" and 2) no one is required to read the plaque at the entrance of the department’s emergency operations center. The decision stressed that the preambles to 44 states reference "a Supreme Being," while three other states have establishment clauses that refer explicitly to God or "speak approvingly of religion."

The ruling added that there has been no Kentucky case that has “prohibited a statutory reference to God of the sort embodied in the statutes in question… That rationale would place this section at odds with the (Kentucky) Constitution’s Preamble.” (The preamble of the Kentucky Constitution thanks “Almighty God” for the welfare of the commonwealth)

This most recent decision made by the Kentucky Court of Appeals in 2011 overturned a 2009 ruling by a state circuit judge who found that legislation requiring the state to recognize the Almighty “created an official government position on God,” that violates both the Kentucky and U.S constitutions’ bans on state-established religion.

The conflict in this Kentucky court case is a testament to the important and often controversial role that religion plays in contemporary legal, political and public issues. The inherent issue in this case involves the establishment clause of the First Amendment, and questions whether publicly acknowledging a dependence on “Almighty God” for homeland security and publicly displaying a Bible verse at a state-run department demonstrates an establishment of religion.

Personally, I do not agree with the ruling in this case. Although it is often tough to discern what does/does not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, the references to religion by the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security are blatant violations of this clause in my opinion. Simply saying that the director of the Office of Homeland Security “doesn't need to” believe in an Almighty God and saying that visitors to the agency's emergency operations center "don't need to look" at the Bible verse on the plaque at its entrance are not legitimate excuses against the establishment clause.

The decision made in Stone v. Graham (1980) that we discussed in class helps in assessing this case in Kentucky. In Stone v. Graham, the court held that the posting of the 10 commandments in public school classrooms was “plainly religious in nature,” and thus a direct violation of the establishment clause. In my opinion, by publicly declaring a “dependence on Almighty God” and by displaying a verse from the Bible in a public place, Kentucky’s Department of Homeland Security is violating the establishment clause. No government or state-run organization should publicly impose any faith-based material in any aspect of their operations on the public.

It will be interesting to see how the court's decision will influence the relationship between church and state in the United States, and how cases involving the establishment clause are dealt with in the future.

Additional sources:

http://www.therepublic.com/view/story/bbcb103beee74c7aa96b3dd3916955db/KY--God-Reference/

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,460889,00.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Tl5NhdtL8Y

5 comments:

Harry R. said...

I agree with Andrew that the reliance on God for national security is an inappropriate reliance which opposes the Establishment Clause. This policy endorses religion over non-religion with the backing of the state government. I would oppose this policy regardless of its establishment issues. Committing our national security to the reliance on a divine figure is not a policy for national security which I support. Government endorsement of a particular type of religion is created with no secular purpose served.

Ashley R said...

I agree with the Kentucky decision, but for different reasons. Our history demonstrates that our leaders and Founders constantly and publicly appeal to divine Providence to guide our nation to prosperity. To begin, the Declaration of Independence, which paved the way for our government and for the rights of Americans, presupposes the existence of a Supreme Being. The Founders repeatedly affirmed their “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” George Washington, in his First Inaugural Address, discussed his “fervent supplications to that Almighty Being…that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves… No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States….” Even Thomas Jefferson, in his Second Inaugural Address, appealed to “His Providence” to whom he asked the American people to “join in supplications…that He will…” guide our nation. Later Presidents also invoked divine assistance. President Lincoln, declared that “…if God wills that (the Civil War) continue…‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” President Cleveland asked the American people to “acknowledge…Almighty God, who presides over the destiny of nations…” As the Court ruled in Zorach v. Clausen, “[w]e are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. It is a deeply engrained tradition to appeal to the Creator for help with issues dealing with the safety and prosperity of our nation. To be sure, the words of the Founders demonstrate that they credit the very founding of America to an act of divine Providence.
Nevertheless, if this case were to reach SCOTUS, it would be reversed based on the precedents discussed in the blog. However, precedents often contradict or may be wrong, and so one must be wary of precedent. With a firm reliance on history and in the protection of divine Providence, the Court should affirm. [sorry for the length]

Annie M said...

Although I see Ashley's well developed points, I have to agree with Andrew on this one. What is that picture implying? That those who have no religion and do not believe in a God aren't protected by national security? I think it is highly inappropriate and, actually, irrelevant. I also think that it is a clear and undisputable opposition to the Establishment Clause.

David P said...

This is clearly a case of establishment. Although Ashley brings up that historically higher powers have been referenced in legal documents, that does not make it ok in modern society. This is a time when we have to consider non-religion and less mainstream religions who do not believe in "God," but another higher power. Are nonreligious people not protected by national security in Kentucky now? This is establishment against atheism, polytheism, and any other religion that worships a higher power other than "almighty God."

Casey K said...

I agree with andrew here as well. I think this is a clear violation of the establishment clause. Just because a reference to god was acceptable in history does not give it legitimacy today. This is more than just connecting the government on religion, it is the government admitting a reliance on religion. This type of connection to religion is absolutely unconstitutional and should not be allowed.