Sunday, February 20, 2000

Problems take back seat to lawmakers' religion obsession


Politicians lose sight of reason for serving

BY PATRICK CROWLEY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Imagine you're at church this morning and in the middle of the service the pastor closes his Bible, pulls out a campaign brochure or a piece of state legislation and begins reading.

        Not merely reading, but touting and advocating the material.

        Would you be surprised? Angry? Would you get up and leave? Would you care?

        Why do I ask? Because Kentucky politics is again crossing the line into religion, a situation that should feel as odd as the one outlined above, but doesn't.

        When are the pols going to realize they aren't elected to be our moral compass in life? They aren't there to tell us how to pray or to bash members of a religion they don't agree with.

        So many Kentucky politicians seem obsessed with using politics to force their religious beliefs on others.

        In Frankfort these days, they should just tear down the Capitol's dome and erect a revival tent.

        That's about what the General Assembly looks like these days — a revival. Every few days it's a new religious issue being tackled by lawmakers.

        We're only halfway through the legislative session and already we've seen bills introduced and passed by at least one chamber that would:

        • Allow schools to post the Ten Commandments. Never mind that such a law is sure to be challenged as unconstitutional. As one supporter of the legislation said last week, it's going to take a “religious war” to reclaim the country's “Christian heritage.”

        • Let church groups ignore civil rights laws by allowing them to refuse to rent facilities to groups that don't believe in God. Nice lesson. If you don't think like us we don't want anything to do with them.

        How does that fit into our “Christian heritage”?

        • Encourage schools to prohibit scheduling events on Sunday because of students' “religious obligations.” Hey, here's an idea. Let the parents decide that issue.

        Funny, some of the same politicians who have made a political career out of railing against “big government” don't bat an eye when it comes to letting government manipulate the way religion affects a person's life.

        The prevailing attitude about religion from a growing majority in the General Assembly can best be seen in a comment made by Sen. Albert Robinson, a Republican from London, Ky., who sponsored the Ten Commandments resolution.

        “When the boat came to these great shores, it did not have an atheist, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew,” he said last week before the Senate approved the measure 37-1.

        “Ninety-eight percent plus of these people were Christians.”

        He must have forgotten that most of those people came here to escape religious tyranny, not promote it.

        The heavy emphasis on religion in Frankfort has taken its toll on Rep. Kathy Stein, a liberal Lexington Democrat and former prosecutor who never backs down from a fight.

        Ms. Stein, who is Jewish, said she was “about fed up” with all the efforts in Frankfort to promote Christianity.

        To absolutely no one's surprise, plenty of Northern Kentucky lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, are all over the religious legislation. They always are.

        It's not going to end soon, either.

        It's not just politicians trying to push their own religious beliefs on voters that is so disturbing about this trend. What hurts worse is that pols stand by and watch as others use religion as a wedge that drives people apart and promotes intolerance, unacceptance and hatred.

        What was GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush thinking when he gave a recent speech at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, the site of yesterday's Republican presidential primary?

        The school is a quaint place where interracial dating is banned, where gays are threatened with being kicked off the grounds, where African-Americans were refused admission until recently.

        On top of that, its founding family bashed Catholics and the pope with a vitriol that is downright scary.

        Is that “compassionate conservatism”? Mr. Bush should have ducked that appearance. Maybe he learned a lesson when Newport native Gary Bauer, a former candidate for the nomination and a devout Christian, endorsed Mr. Bush's opponent, John McCain.

        Mr. Bauer is a Christian conservative, and wears his politics on his sleeve. But he doesn't buy into attacking people and religions because they don't believe exactly as he does.

        Meanwhile,, back in Frankfort, there are plenty of problems legislators could be dealing with instead of religion.

        Health care is still a mess. Roads need repaired. KERA is suffering growing pains. The budget is in trouble. Special interests have far too much influence.

        Too bad, Kentucky. Your lawmakers are busy hanging up the commandments. Amen.

        Patrick Crowley covers Kentucky politics for The Kentucky Enquirer. His column appears Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at (606) 578-5581, or (502) 875-7526 in Frankfort, or by e-mail at crowleys@cinci.infi.net.