Legislature too wrapped up in religion, Jewish leaders say
By Peter Smith, The Courier-Journal, March 29, 2006
The leaders of Louisville's Jewish community have taken Kentucky legislators to task for what they see as an excessive amount of religious overtones to the legislative session and related events.
A letter signed by officers of the Community Relations Council, the public policy arm of the Jewish Community Federation of Louisville, cited as examples bills authorizing the posting of the Ten Commandments and the motto "In God We Trust" at the Capitol; a governor's prayer breakfast at which only Christians spoke; and a church group's survey asking legislators whether they had professed faith in Jesus.
"We believe that our elected officials should focus less energy on legislating religion itself, and should spend more effort on legislating good policies based on the fundamental moral values shared by all our citizens," the letter said in part.
H. Philip Grossman, the lead signee of the letter, said various events created "a whole feeling of perhaps marginalizing not just the Jewish community, but a lot of other communities, and not just Jews and other non-Christians but also certain Christian groups."
"We wanted to speak to that, because it seemed like it was just a freight train running through," Grossman said.
The letter, which also was sent to Gov. Ernie Fletcher and appears on today's Forum page, received mixed reactions in Frankfort and in the state.
"Would I be out of line if I said amen to that?" David Howe of McCreary County said of the letter. "I agree with them wholeheartedly."
Howe, an atheist and son of a minister, was a plaintiff in a U.S. Supreme Court case last year that barred a Ten Commandments display at the McCreary County courthouse. He said he'd willingly be a plaintiff again if the General Assembly inspires more such displays.
But Jeff Sharp of Glasgow disagreed with the council's letter, which criticized a survey organized by Sharp and his church youth class. It asks legislators and their election challengers if they have accepted Jesus as their "Lord and Savior."
"I've felt that there hasn't been enough Christian values shown by our legislators," said Sharp, who also is the county attorney for Barren County. "If it's moving more in the direction of Christian values, I don't see that that's going to harm our state."
Sharp said that 73 of 74 respondents to the survey expressed faith in Jesus. The other respondent was Jewish.
Rep. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, who is Jewish and who sponsored a resolution calling on legislators to disregard the survey, called the council's letter "right on." The House has not yet voted on her resolution.
The Jewish Community Federation council includes representatives of synagogues, agencies and others in Louisville's Jewish community, the largest in the state at more than 8,000.
Gov. Fletcher's press secretary, Jodi Whitaker, said: "We have received the letter. We appreciate the Jewish Community Federation of Louisville's thoughts, and we are working on an appropriate response to their letter."
John McGary, spokesman for House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said the speaker has made an effort to invite people of various faiths, including Jews and Muslims, to open House sessions with prayer.
A spokeswoman for Senate President David Williams said he was busy with budget negotiations last night and could not comment.
The council's letter criticized a proposed state constitutional amendment supported by Williams that would prevent state courts from barring Ten Commandments displays in public places. That measure is pending.
Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro -- who sponsored another bill allowing the Ten Commandments and other religious texts in public historical displays -- said he has "not noticed an increasing emphasis on religion in this session as compared to others."
Nelson's bill, which passed and awaits Fletcher's signature, also requires the posting of "In God We Trust" behind the House speaker's dais and would return a Ten Commandments monument to the Capitol grounds.
"I think the majority of people in Kentucky feel issues like this are important to them," Nelson said. "It's part of who they are."
He added that such bills don't "cause us to neglect other issues," noting that legislators deal with "a thousand bills" every year.
Kent Ostrander, executive director of the Family Foundation of Kentucky, which has advocated for Ten Commandments displays, applauded the Jewish council for "stepping forward and voicing their particular concern."
But he added: "Our concern has been on the other side of the issue, that in recent years there have been those trying to censor all religious expression from the public domain."
Kathryn Johnson, president of the Kentucky Council of Churches, however, said she agreed with the Jewish council's letter.
"While we're very devoted to the way faith shapes our citizenship, we also feel called to the creation of a community in which all seek wholeness and faithful living," said Johnson, who also is a professor at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Khalid Kahloon, executive director of the American Muslim Association of Louisville, also agreed with the letter.
He said the Jewish community, because it is long established, represents "the voice of religious minorities in this community. … I'm glad they're doing it for the rest of us."
Surveys indicate the vast majority of Kentuckians identify themselves as Christians, although their practice varies. Nearly 1 million adults worship so infrequently that they're considered "unchurched," according to a survey by the Barna Research Group in 2004.
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