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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
Acknowledge ‘Almighty God’ or Go Directly to Jail
Cranford, NJ—Everyday in Kentucky, due to a 2008 homeland security law, atheists and agnostics are potentially forced to assert that the public safety of their state is dependent on “Almighty God” or face criminal charges, including up to 12 months in jail.
On November 13, 2012, American Atheists’ National Legal Director Edwin Kagin submitted a petition for a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). American Atheists is asking SCOTUS to review the Kentucky Homeland Security law. American Atheists won at the Circuit Court level a ruling that the law violated the First Amendment, but the decision was reversed by the Kentucky state Court of Appeals. The Kentucky state Supreme Court declined to review the Court of Appeals’ decision. Filing the petition does not guarantee SCOTUS will hear the case; only one in 1,000 cases are heard. Four of the nine justices must vote to hear the case.
On August 17, 2012, the Kentucky Supreme Court refused to hear a motion for discretionary review, brought by American Atheists and local plaintiffs, to a state law that makes it mandatory that the Commonwealth and its citizens give credit to Almighty God for its safety and security. This request was denied in a single line that said that the “…Petition for Discretionary Review is denied.” Signed, Chief Justice, Kentucky Supreme Court. The law states, “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 AbrahamLincoln’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.’”
This case was first introduced December 2, 2008, when ten Kentucky residents joined with American Atheists to launch a lawsuit against the state. Mr. 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. Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate ruled that the law violated the First Amendment’s protection again 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.”
American Atheists and the local plaintiffs won the case in the Franklin County Circuit Court; however, the Kentucky Court of Appeals quickly reversed this ruling.
In a dissenting opinion supporting the lower court’s ruling, Special Judge Ann O‘Malley Shake said Kentucky’s law crossed a constitutional line. Among other things, she said the law has criminal penalties, including up to 12 months in jail, for anyone who fails to comply. “Unlike the Ohio state motto, which is passive,” Judge Shake wrote, “Kentucky’s law is a legislative finding, avowed as factual, that the Commonwealth is not safe absent reliance on Almighty God. Further, (the law) places a duty upon the executive director to publicize the assertion while stressing to the publicthat dependence upon Almighty God is vital, or necessary, in assuring the safety of the commonwealth.”