The very first clause of the very first amendment to the Constitution is the Establishment Clause. You know the one, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The founders, concerned about the vacuum caused by the disestablishment of the Church of England, wanted to prevent any one church rushing in to fill the void and took great pains ensuring that the government would neither favor one church or any church or hinder anyone's right to worship as they see fit.
Two centuries later the law was clearly interpreted for modern times in Emerson v. Board of Education, a landmark Supreme Court decision. While the court did allow the state of New Jersey to reimburse parents of children who rode public transportation to both public and private schools, Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority, saying in part, “The "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the federal government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another...No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion."
Emerson allowed a state to reimburse all parents regardless of their faiths because school attendance was compelled by the state; it favored neither public or parochial schools, nor a single faith's school over another. Judge Executive Jim Adams unilateral decision to use county employees and county-owned equipment to chip and seal the parking lot of the Church at Cedar Creek is clearly a violation of this fundamental precept placed first in the Bill of Rights by the founding fathers in case readers got bored and skipped ahead to the good parts about cruel and unusual punishment.
Adams offered three excuses for flouting the constitutional restrictions on using taxpayers money to support an individual church, each lamer than the one that preceded it.
The first excuse, that the county has always done this, was a red herring. It doesn't take a lot of brainpower to generate a long list of wrongs done over the decades in this county and nobody wants to use this argumentum ad antiquitam logic to bring them back. If anything, it is a prima facie admission that the county's chief executive knew what he had ordered done was illegal but counted on the complicity of the taxpayers, the majority of whom are Christians, in perpetrating this misuse of their money.
The second argument, that paving church parking lots at the taxpayers’ expense is allowed by Kentucky law is just fallacious. Without consulting the County Attorney, the judge ordered the Road Department to chip and seal the Church at Cedar Creek's parking lot under Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) 179.375. The KRS allows counties to construct and maintain church, cemetery and public school access roads and driveways, but only after being accepted into the county road system, which requires the approval of the magistrates. Adams’ logic falls apart on many aspects of this argument. First, the work the county did last week was on a parking lot, despite Adams tortured logic that since “you park when you get to the end of your driveway, your driveway is a parking lot.”
Secondly, the construction was done before the parking lot was accepted into the county road system. There is a lot of jockeying amongst magistrates to have roads in their districts accepted into the system of over 400 miles of road maintained by the county and, admittedly, a lot of horse trading. To force this decision on the magistrates by fiat was, in addition to being illegal, not playing fairly within the informal rules of the court.
Finally, Adams’ contention that the county tries to help out churches when there is labor available could lead taxpayers to the misapprehension that the Road Department is underemployed; it is not. With the county's aging infrastructure, increased road usage and several years of floods, ice and snow, the county employees have their hands full keeping the county's road network safe and sound for motorists. County employee and county-owned equipment time is not for sale, despite what Adams said in Fiscal Court Monday. Additionally, when any government uses its labor, equipment and economy of scale purchasing power to do work that should rightfully be done commercially is taking advantage of an unfair competitive advantage that is materially damaging to local, small businesses.
This whole sordid affair reflects poorly on Adams’ judgement and ability to lead. Rather than speculate on what Adams stands to gain for using taxpayers money to the benefit of a very small group of people it is more important to look at what people stand to lose. First and foremost, the county stands to lose respect for the rule of law. Regardless of the fact that Lincoln County has a high percentage of churchgoers, it is incumbent on the chief executive of the county to ensure that the law of the land is followed and no one group is favored over another.
Secondly, there are other people affected by Adams’ ill-advised unilateral decision to spend tax dollars on a church parking lot, namely, the County Attorney, the Fiscal Court, the supervisor of the Road Department and the County Engineer. The County Attorney is going to be forced to decide whether or not Adams’ decision is defensible or not under Kentucky law. He has Hobson's choice; he can either appear disloyal to the Judge Executive and disassociate himself from Adams’ decision, or attempt to defend the indefensible to the Attorney General who will surely not concur. The magistrates have been thrust into an unenviable position as well; they can either take a church parking lot into county maintenance in perpetuity or run afoul of the KRS. Finally, those responsible for supervising the execution of the Cedar Creek project were ordered to do something they knew was wrong, but the boss is the boss and they soldiered on. While Adams is insulated from the county road workers opinions, the Road Supervisor and the County Engineer have to look their employees in the eye every morning and encourage them to work hard and economically for the benefit of the taxpayers and the safety of the citizens.
While embarrassing and regrettable, Adams’ gross misuse of his authority is not without opportunity. Taxpayers and voters need to send a clear message to the county's leadership that the county is not for sale. The county's religious communities are vibrant, thriving and not in need of the taxpayers’ assistance to remain that way. We look to them to take the moral high road and that way does not lie along back room deals with the judge executive.