FRANKFORT, Ky. — The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a Baptist university can't keep $11 million awarded by state lawmakers some four years ago to open a pharmacy school.
The case, which involves the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, has been closely watched by advocates for other church-affiliated schools that have largely been excluded in the past from state funding for construction projects.
A trial court judge ruled in 2008 that the appropriation to the private, church-affiliated university violated the state constitution. The university's attorneys appealed directly to the state Supreme Court, skipping the appeals court, in hopes of a quicker decision.
Lawmakers had appropriated $10 million in 2006 to build a pharmacy school on the southeastern Kentucky campus and an additional $1 million for scholarships for pharmacy students.
Justice Lisabeth Abramson, writing for the majority in University of the Cumberlands v. Pennybacker, said the appropriations violated two sections of the Kentucky Constitution.
"If Kentucky needs to expand the opportunities for pharmacy school education within the commonwealth, the Kentucky General Assembly may most certainly address that pressing public need, but not by appropriating public funds to an educational institution that is religiously affiliated," Abramson wrote.
Abramson also said the scholarship program "is precisely the type of special privilege and favoritism" that the state constitution condemns.
The Rev. Paul Simmons, a Baptist minister and president of the Louisville chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, heralded the ruling as a win for religion.
"Taxpayers should never be forced to support churches or church schools," said Simmons, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "Religion is at its best when supported by the voluntary donations of the faithful, not politically motivated government handouts."
Daphne Baird, spokeswoman for the university, said the decision is a death knell for the proposed pharmacy school.
"However, other pharmacy schools are being created and others expanded since the critical need was brought to the attention of the public as a result of this case," Baird said. "Thus, in our view, we have accomplished our purpose, which was to meet a critical need for pharmacists in the Appalachian area and beyond."
Franklin County Special Circuit Judge Roger Crittenden had held in the initial ruling that the state appropriation violated a constitutional prohibition against public education money being spent on any "church, sectarian or denominational school."
The gay-rights group Kentucky Fairness Alliance filed the lawsuit in 2006 after the University of the Cumberlands expelled a gay student for posting comments about his sexual orientation and dating life on the Internet. Attorneys for the organization tried using the expulsion to bolster their arguments in the lawsuit that the school shouldn't receive funding from Kentucky taxpayers.
University of the Cumberlands argued that the state funding would help students and area residents alike by providing pharmacists and other professionals needed in the Appalachian region, and that it was therefore a legitimate appropriation.
However, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Bill Sharp said the Kentucky Constitution contains broader protections against public funding for private, church-affiliated schools than does the U.S. Constitution. Sharp said it appeared some state lawmakers wanted to overlook those protections, which, he said, made the outcome of the lawsuit "extremely important."