By Bob Allen
Thursday, 04 December 2008

LEXINGTON, Ky. (ABP) -- An atheist-rights group and 10 Kentucky citizens are suing the commonwealth over a law requiring that the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security credit God for keeping residents safe.

The religious language, largely unnoticed when a Southern Baptist lawmaker inserted it into homeland-security legislation in 2006, made news recently when its sponsor complained the department did not mention God in its mission statement, on its website or in its 2008 Homeland Security report.

Rep. Tom Riner (D-Louisville) inserted language into the 2006 bill that called for "stressing the dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the commonwealth" and affirmed that security "cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God."

Former Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R), himself an ordained Baptist minister, obeyed the law, which includes posting a plaque with the 88-word statement at the entrance to the state Emergency Operations Center.

But a 56-page homeland-security report released Oct. 31 by the current Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, omitted the religious language. Beshear is the son of a Primitive Baptist minister.

"We certainly expect it to be there, of course," Riner told the Herald-Leader.

After learning of the God requirement's existence, American Atheists recruited 10 Kentuckians to sue for its removal.

The lawsuit called the law an unlawful attempt to "endorse belief over non-belief, set up a religious test, indoctrinate Kentucky citizens and state employees in theistic religious beliefs, and 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."

It denounced the law as "grossly and outrageously at variance" with both the United States and Kentucky constitutions and "retrograde to the very purposes of protecting American freedoms for which the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security was established."

American Atheists President Ed Buckner called actions by the legislature "illegal and un-American" and "unconstitutional on their face."

Paul Simmons, chairman of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, urged lawmakers to overturn the legislation. Simmons, a former professor at the Louisville-based Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told the Louisville Courier-Journal the Office of Homeland Security "is not in the business of promoting religion" but instead "securing all citizens against harm from enemies."

AU spokesman Rob Boston described the God requirement as an example of "meaningless civil religion" similar to the prayer that opens every session of Congress -- usually delivered before a nearly empty chamber. "It has become by-rote ritual, a thing to be gotten through so we can get to work, a mere formality," said Boston. "I'd like Rep. Riner or one of his supporters to explain exactly how this helps religion."

In a telephone interview, Riner called the lawsuit "frivolous" and said the disputed language is no different than religious references in inaugural addresses or proclamations made by every U.S. president or in the constitutions of all 50 states.

An ordained minister and pastor of Christ is King Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., Riner attended Southern Seminary in the 1960s, but quit short of earning a divinity degree.

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Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.

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