FRANKFORT, Ky. — State funding for a new pharmacy school at a private, Baptist university violates the state constitution, a Franklin County judge has ruled.
Kentucky lawmakers authorized the spending at the University of the Cumberlands shortly after it ousted a student in April 2006 for being gay. Plaintiffs had argued, among other things, that the student's dismissal from the southeastern Kentucky university was evidence that the school would not guarantee equal protection.
However, Roger Crittenden, Franklin County Circuit Court special judge, ruled on March 6 that the court did not have to decide on that issue. Instead, Crittenden ruled that funding for the school's pharmacy building violated portions of the Kentucky Constitution that guarantee religious freedom and that public money for education should not be spent on any "church, sectarian or denominational school."
Crittenden ruled it was unconstitutional for the General Assembly to appropriate $10 million in state funding for a new pharmacy school at University of the Cumberlands and $2 million for a permanent scholarship fund there.
"This type of direct expenditure is not permitted by the constitution of Kentucky," Crittenden wrote in his ruling.
He also ruled that funding a permanent scholarship program as part of the state's two-year spending plan was unconstitutional.
Tim Tracey, an attorney for the Center for Law & Religious Freedom in Springfield, Va., had argued on behalf of the school that the Legislature acted lawfully because it sought to address the state's shortage of pharmacists. Tracey said university officials were reviewing the decision and would decide whether to appeal to a higher court.
The university said in a statement that it was disappointed by the ruling and would consider the viability of its plans for a pharmacy program over the next several days.
"I am grateful to the state legislature for its confidence in the University and for its attempt to enhance opportunities for those who live in our area," said Dr. James Taylor, president of University of the Cumberlands. "I have no doubt that the funds appropriated for the pharmacy school would have served the public interest well."
Kentucky Fairness Alliance executive director Christina Gilgor said Crittenden's ruling was a victory against state-subsidized discrimination.
"Judge Crittenden's ruling simply reaffirms that Kentucky taxpayers aren't expected to fund private, religious institutions. It's a victory against state-subsidized discrimination," Gilgor said.
State Sen. Vernie McGaha, who intervened in the lawsuit supporting the university, said he disagreed with Crittenden's decision because he thought the state should be able to give money to a private institution if it can offer services in exchange.
"I think it's a good business decision for the state, and there's clearly a need for the services," McGaha, R-Russell Springs, said of funding a pharmacy building at the school.
The university ousted student Jason Johnson in April 2006 after he posted comments about his sexual orientation and dating life on the Internet. Plaintiffs argued the school discriminated against Johnson's free-speech rights, while the university maintained it was following its conduct policy.
Crittenden said he did not need to make a ruling on that point, but wrote that "this is exactly the 'entanglement' between government interests and religious institutions that the Kentucky Constitution prohibits."
Johnson applauded the ruling in comments to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
"I think that hits the nail on the head — my stance all along has been that while religious institutions have the right to hold any beliefs they wish, when it comes to taking public money, we have to have a much broader mind, and that's the way the judge ruled," Johnson told the newspaper.
Senate President David Williams said the ruling was incorrect in part because the private university should not be considered a "religious sect, society or denomination." And, the school is not a church, Williams said.
"I think the judge is wrong," said Williams, R-Burkesville.
State Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, a Lexington Democrat who is openly gay, called the ruling a "victory" for Kentucky citizens and the state constitution.
"Our forefathers, using astute wisdom, mandated the separation of church and state. That separation protects both religion and the state," Scorsone said in written statement. "Public dollars should go to public institutions. To do so otherwise is to shortchange the taxpayers."