Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Thou Shall Not Beat a Dead Horse

Once again we have Kentucky Legislators asking for bills to allow the 10 Commandments to be displayed. Can we stop the madness? Do we really need to tie up public money fighting a losing battle over something anyone can see if they walk 20 feet to their bookshelf or use a search engine?

But hey, it beats actually doing work for the good of the public.

Two lawmakers -- one Democrat and one Republican -- have filed bills aimed at returning Ten Commandments displays to public buildings, sparking a battle over which party will claim ownership of the issue for political purposes.

State Republican Party chairman Darrell Brock said the bills would show whether Kentucky Democrats can separate themselves from the national Democratic Party, which he perceives as too liberal for most Kentuckians.

"I believe this will be one of the first tests of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, who seems to be running the state House," he said.

But state Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan said he believes the Ten Commandments belong in public places and said the "golden rules" shouldn't be the subject of political partisanship.

Lundergan said the "days are over" when Democrats allow themselves to be painted as lacking in moral values.

"We will no longer allow the Republican Party to identify themselves as the only political party that is considered to be a party of people of faith," Lundergan said. "The Democrats are standing up and saying hey, this is an issue that we should probably be joining hands on."

He accused Republicans of using religion as a "wedge to win elections."

Brock said the issue would prompt voter interest, bringing citizens to the state House to lobby their legislators. But Brock denied Lundergan's charge that Republicans are using the issue as a way to mobilize voter support.

"In my view, the Ten Commandments transcends politics," Brock said.

The proposals
One of the bills, filed by Republican Rep. Stan Lee of Lexington, would authorize the posting of the Ten Commandments at the state Capitol in Frankfort, as part of a broader display that includes other historical markers.

The other bill, offered by Democratic Rep. Rick Nelson of Middlesboro, proposes a constitutional amendment to allow the Ten Commandments in any public building, but Nelson is rewriting it to add the provision about other historical markers.

The proposed bills follow this summer's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky's Pulaski and McCreary counties were unconstitutional. But in a separate ruling, the court said an exhibit in Texas could remain because it included other historical markers and had been in place for about 40 years.

Analysts said such legislation could serve the same political function next year as the gay-marriage amendment did last year, defining the parties.

Kentucky House Democrats had initially resisted allowing a vote on the amendment, but eventually relented and then went on to lose seven seats in the 2004 elections. The gay-marriage amendment's presence on the ballot – in Kentucky and 10 other states – is widely credited with contributing to Democratic losses.

Joe Gershtenson, director of the Center for Kentucky History and Politics at Eastern Kentucky University, said for state Democrats, proposing a Ten Commandments bill would inoculate the party against Republican attacks over social issues.

"We know where public opinion is on this, and it is lopsided," said Gershtenson, a registered Democrat. "There's very strong political incentives for the Republicans to do it. For Democrats, there's some incentive to do that as well."

ACLU opposition
Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate say they expect some form of Ten Commandments legislation to pass during the session that starts next month.

David Friedman, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, who argued successfully to have the Kentucky counties' displays struck down this year, predicted such bills would also be struck down in court if they're passed.

The legislature already passed a similar bill to bring the Ten Commandments to the Capitol, which included a preamble with overtly religious motives, which was struck down in 2000, Friedman said. The courts would view the new bills as a "rather thinly veiled" attempt to achieve the same end, he said.

"We sued last time they did it, we won last time they did it," Friedman said. "It's just an incredible waste of taxpayer dollars for the citizens of the commonwealth to keep paying the ACLU to strike down these unconstitutional laws."

Democrats' dissension
The bills originated in the House, which the Democrats control by a margin of 56-44.

Some Democrats were dismayed by the quickness of Democratic leaders to support placing the Ten Commandments in public places.

Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, said lawmakers should focus on "bread and butter" Democratic issues such as caring for the needy and paying for public education.

"I think it's a big mistake to try to out-Republican the Republicans," Marzian said. "The voters of Kentucky are not stupid, and they can see through that for what it is, which is just using religion for political opportunism."

House Speaker Jody Richards said he expects to support a rewritten version of Nelson's bill that House Majority Caucus Chairman Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, is helping to draft.

Richards denied that House Democrats' efforts are aimed at neutralizing a potentially divisive political issue in an election year.

"I think it's pretty crass to think of the political benefits of doing something like this," Richards, D-Bowling Green, said. "What we want to do is what the people want, and to do it in a constitutional way."

Senate President David Williams said he expects to see similar legislation filed in the state Senate. He predicted there would be "broad support" in the legislature.

"I think there are a lot of people that feel like that the Ten Commandments are primary documents, and they played an important part in the development of our country," Williams, R-Burkesville, said.

Lee's bill would require that the Ten Commandments be returned to the Capitol as part of a package of historical markers commemorating "important people, ideals, or events in the history of Kentucky."

The bill attempts to conform with the Supreme Court's ruling in the Texas case, Lee said.

Asked what other historical markers he would add to make a Kentucky Capitol display pass constitutional muster, Lee said, "whatever we can find."

"No sane thinking person, in my opinion, can dispute that the Ten Commandments have formed the basis for many of the laws that we all now rely upon," Lee said.

Nelson's bill proposes a constitutional amendment that would allow the Ten Commandments to be posted in any public building. The amendment would require voter approval.

But Nelson said that with Damron's help, he's rewriting the bill to make it a statute, which would not require ballot approval, and to incorporate other historical monuments, in keeping with the Texas ruling. He said that approach would be quickest, easiest and most likely to be found constitutional.

Damron said Democrats are just trying to provide legally acceptable guidelines for communities that want to voluntarily display the Biblical rules.

"It's not a requirement that anybody do it," Damron said. "It more or less is informative and instructional."

Elisabeth Beardsley can be reached at (502) 875-5136

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