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Homosexual group sues Ky. governor over funding for univ.

FRANKFORT, Ky. (BP)–A homosexual rights group is suing the governor of Kentucky in order to prevent the state from giving $11 million to the Baptist-affiliated University of the Cumberlands after the school expelled a homosexual student. The governor, in turn, asked a judge to determine the constitutionality of using taxpayer money for private institutions.

Christina Gilgor, executive director of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, said the governor’s plan to give $10 million to help establish a pharmacy school and another $1 million in scholarships for future pharmacy students is an “unconstitutional appropriation and use of public funds” for “a sectarian and denominational school that treats Kentucky citizens unequally,” according to the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper.

Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican, meanwhile, said he plans to hold the grant — rather than veto it — until questions about its constitutionality are determined in court.

“I’ve got real mixed feelings about funding private institutions,” Fletcher told The Courier-Journal in Louisville, adding, “I don’t think we ought to be telling these institutions how they’re going to practice their religion.”

Also at issue was $318,000 earmarked for Campbellsville University, which like Cumberlands is affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention. But Campbellsville notified Fletcher April 28 that the school would not accept the grant because the budget line item was inappropriately designated and because the school wants to be removed from legal proceedings related to Cumberlands.

The Cumberlands dispute began April 6 when the university expelled a student who touted his homosexuality on MySpace.com, a social networking website. The student’s behavior was counter to the standard required by the school, which prohibits sex outside marriage and homosexuality, according to the current student handbook.

School officials have since said Jason Johnson, a sophomore theater major, may finish the semester by sending in work to complete his classes and receive final grades.

Funding for the pharmacy school is a problem apart from the constitutionality issue, some have noted, because the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education — the only group that accredits U.S. pharmacy schools — requires policies that ban discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, lifestyle, national origin or disability. And in July 2007, revised guidelines adding “sexual orientation” to the list will take effect.

Kentucky Senate President David Williams, a Republican, has defended the state’s funding of the pharmacy school because there is a “severe shortage” of pharmacists in the state, especially in the southeastern region where the University of the Cumberlands is located.

Williams said the money allotted for the Cumberlands pharmacy school would come from severance taxes paid by local coal companies, not individual taxpayers, and he urged citizens to consider the opportunities such a school would bring to the state.

“Area students who normally would have to travel long distances to be educated in a medical profession can stay closer to home and are therefore more likely to stay in a region that has been historically underserved,” Williams wrote in a letter to the editor published in The Courier-Journal April 28.

Kentucky Attorney General Greg Stumbo predicted April 26 that the courts will require the University of the Cumberlands to obey all state laws and regulations pertaining to public schools and discrimination before it can receive state funding, the Herald-Leader reported.

The state’s constitution addresses the funding matter this way: “No portion of any fund or tax now existing, or that may hereafter be raised or levied for educational purposes, shall be appropriated to, or used by, or in aid of, any church, sectarian or denominational school.”

But Fletcher’s general counsel, Jim Deckard, believes the ban applies only to elementary and secondary schools and not to colleges, the Herald-Leader said.

Fletcher said he will abide by the court’s ruling and he welcomes debate on the issue.

“I believe we need to answer once and for all in Kentucky the legality of funding private faith-based institutions for public purposes,” the governor said on statewide television April 24.

Paul Chitwood, president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, commended Fletcher’s handling of the situation.

“I’m very encouraged by the fact that he left the item in the budget and I think that speaks well for the governor’s decision and his concern for the economic development of Kentucky as a whole because I see that as a critical part of this issue,” Chitwood told the Herald-Leader.

“I think he’s wise to seek a ruling on this issue as a means of protecting both the state and the University of the Cumberlands,” he added. “I think if the money was released and the university began building and then it was challenged as it well may be, it could be a difficult position to put the state and the university in.”

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  • Erin Roach