Nation - Kentucky Sup. Court rules against Baptist univ. in dispute over funding

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday 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, had 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 had ruled in 2008 that the appropriation to the private, church-affiliated university violates the state constitution. The university's attorneys appealed directly to the supreme court, skipping the court of appeals, in hopes of expediting a 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, said the appropriations violated two sections of the state 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 constitution condemns.

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 Kentucky's constitution contains broader protections against public funding for private, church-affiliated schools than does the U.S. Constitution. Sharp said it appears some state lawmakers want to overlook those protections, which, he said, makes the outcome of the lawsuit "extremely important."

Published: Fri, Apr 23, 2010