American Atheists et al v. The Commonweath of Kentucky

Summary

On March 28, 2002, The Kentucky Legislature enacted KRS 39A.285 which, in Section 8, states "The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God."

On July 12, 2006, the Legislature-passed Senate Bill 59, a change to KRS 39G.010(2)(a) took effect. This requires the Executive Director of the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security to: "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).”

This clear establishment of a religious preference, assigning to a government office (the Director of the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security) the duty of creating a displaying a plaque with only the religious language of Section 3 of the statute on it, is an unambiguous violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Government time, energy, personnel, and funds were expended doing this.

Filing Suit

This case was first introduced on December 2, 2008 when American Atheists joined with ten Kentucky residents to launch a lawsuit against the state of Kentucky. At the time of its filing, National Legal Director Edwin Kagin said, "This is one of the most egregiously and breathtakingly unconstitutional actions by a state legislature that I've ever seen." The case went to trial in Franklin County, Kentucky, in August 2009. On August 26, 2009, Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate ruled that the law violated the First Amendment’s protection against the establishment of a state religion.

Judge Wingate’s ruling stated: "Even assuming that most of this nation’s citizens have historically depended upon God by choice for their protection, this does not give the General Assembly the right to force citizens to do so now. This is the very reason the Establishment Clause was created: to protect the minority from the oppression of the majority. The commonwealth's history does not exclude God from the statutes, but it had never permitted the General Assembly to demand that its citizens depend on Almighty God."

On September 4, 2009, Attorney General of Kentucky Jack Conway appealed the ruling to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

The Appeal

On February 24, 2011, a Kentucky Court of Appeals panel made up judges Ann Shake, Laurance VanMeter, and Thomas Wine heard oral arguments for this case. On October 28, 2011, the Court of Appeals ruled, in a 2-to-1 decision, against American Atheists and overturned Judge Wingate's ruling. The full decision, and dissent by Senior Judge Shake, is available here.

Following this decision, American Atheists filed a Motion for Discretionary Review with the Kentucky Supreme Court. This motion was denied on August 17, 2012, the Kentucky Supreme Court denied that motion. Following this decision, American Atheists filed a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States on November 16, 2012. 

Resolution

On January 11, 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States sent a letter to Kentucky Attorney General Conway requesting that Kentucky file a response to American Atheists' petition for a writ of certiorari. On February 12, Attorney General Conway filed the State's response to American Atheists. On March 18, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it had declined to hear this case. President David Silverman said, "We disagree with the court's decision. Kentucky is putting a criminal penalty on a refusal to affirm to a god, and we maintain our stance that this law is unconstitutional. We are proud that we were able to raise awareness about this and we're sorry the Supreme Court has decided to sidestep the issue. The people of Kentucky deserve better."

American Atheists Center
PO Box 158, Cranford, NJ 07016
Phone: 908.276.7300

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