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A Year in Jail for Not Believing in God: American Atheists Challenge Kentucky Law Criminalizing Refusal to Acknowledge God’s Protection

An atheist group is challenging a Kentucky law that mandates the acknowledgment of the state’s “dependence on Almighty God” on a plaque at Homeland Security headquarters as well as in training and educational materials and punishes violators by up to a year in prison.

The Louisville Courier-Journal reports that American Atheists has submitted a petition for a writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court arguing that the state General Assembly has been violating the constitutional prohibition against state sponsorship of religion.

The law in question, which established Kentucky’s Office of Homeland Security in 2006, declares that the Kentucky state legislature affirms that “the safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.” It requires the placement of plaques celebrating God’s power outside the state Homeland Security building, as well as acknowledgment that America’s security is impossible without God in agency training and educational material.

Anyone who violates the law is guilty of a misdemeanor and can be punished by up to a year behind bars. Laws criminalizing the denial of God or God’s power are only found in certain Muslim countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen.

Kentucky’s controversial and seemingly unconstitutional law was sponsored by Democratic state representative and Baptist minister Tom Riner.

“The church-state divide is not a line I see,” Riner told the New York Times. “What I do see is an attempt to separate America from its history of perceiving itself as a nation under God.”

Riner is no stranger to church-state controversy. According to AlterNet, he has spent more than $160,000 fighting a series of losing court cases against the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) over the state’s decision to display the biblical Ten Commandments in public buildings.

After American Atheists sued on behalf of a group of concerned citizens in 2008, state Judge Thomas Wingate ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it “created an official government position on God.”

According to Judge Wingate’s ruling,

“Even assuming that most of this nation’s citizens have historically depended upon God by choice for their protection, this does not give the General Assembly the right to force citizens to do so now. This is the very reason the Establishment Clause was created: to protect the minority from the oppression of the majority. The commonwealth’s history does not exclude God from the statutes, but it had never permitted the General Assembly to demand that its citizens depend on Almighty God.”

But a three-judge panel of the Kentucky Court of Appeals overruled Wingate by a 2-1 vote, ruling that the statute “merely pays lip service to a commonly held belief in the puissance of God” while ignoring the severe criminal penalties potentially resultant from failure to acknowledge the supposed power of a supernatural being whose existence has not been proven and who many citizens do not believe in.

The Kentucky Supreme Court then refused to review the law.

The American Atheists’ petition to the Supreme Court calls the law part of a “misguided push to improperly mix religion and government” and argues that “it ostracizes atheists from politics…impl[ying] that atheists are dangerous to the post-9/11 security of the Commonwealth.”

Filing the petition for a writ of certiorari is no guarantee that the Supreme Court will actually hear this case; only about 1 in 1,000 cases are heard, and four of the nine justices must vote in favor of hearing in order for the case to proceed.

Christian fundamentalism is rife in the Bluegrass State, which is home to the controversial Creation Museum in Petersburg. The museum, which claims to “bring the pages of the Bible to life,” contains a display in which humans and dinosaurs live side-by-side in peace despite the fact that dinosaurs were extinct around 65 million years before modern humans evolved.

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