FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Supreme Court will decide whether a Baptist university can use $11 million awarded by state lawmakers three years ago to open a pharmacy school.
Lawyers are working under a June deadline to file written arguments. Justices could decide the case by the end of the year.
The case, which involves the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, is being watched closely by advocates for other church-affiliated schools that have largely been excluded in the past from state funding for construction projects.
A trial judge ruled last year that the appropriation to the Baptist university violates the state constitution. The university's attorneys appealed directly to the Supreme Court, skipping the Court of Appeals, in hopes of expediting a decision.
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Lawmakers had appropriated $10 million in 2006 to build a pharmacy school on the southeastern Kentucky campus and an additional $1 million for scholarships for pharmacy students.
Special Circuit Judge Roger Crittenden held that the state appropriation violated a constitutional prohibition against public education money being spent on any "church, sectarian or denominational school."
The gay-rights group Kentucky Fairness Alliance filed the lawsuit in 2006 after the University of the Cumberlands expelled a gay student for posting comments about his sexual orientation and dating life on the Internet. Attorneys for the organization tried using the expulsion to bolster their arguments in the lawsuit that the school shouldn't receive funding from Kentucky taxpayers.
"An appropriation of taxpayer dollars is questionable in my mind when it's going to a private religious based institution," said Jody Cofer, a leader of the Fairness group. "There are many public schools that could benefit from that money."
University of the Cumberlands spokeswoman Daphne Baird said the state funding would help students and area residents alike by providing pharmacists and other professionals needed in the Appalachian region. For that reason, Baird said, it was a legitimate appropriation.
However, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Bill Sharp said Kentucky's constitution contains broader protections against public funding for private, church-affiliated schools than does the U.S. Constitution. Sharp said it appears some state lawmakers want to overlook those protections, which, he said, makes the outcome of the lawsuit "extremely important."
Tim Tracey, an attorney for the Christian Legal Society in Springfield, Va., said he thinks the case can clear up the misconception in Kentucky that the state constitution bans such appropriations.
"It goes to the idea that private religious schools ought to be on the same footing as any other private institution," said Tracey, who is representing the Baptist university. "It's worth noting that, the way the rule of law has developed in Kentucky, it's fine to use a private institution to address a public need, except when it's a religious institution. And that's why the case is important."
Tracey said his argument before the Supreme Court is simple: "The legislature made that appropriation not for an educational purpose but for a health and welfare purpose."
The area served by the University of the Cumberlands, Tracey said, is in need of more pharmacists and funding a pharmacy school could have met the need.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, said last week that he had secured $1.2 million to help cover the cost of construction of a wellness center and an addition to a science building. Rogers said funding for both projects can improve health and education in southeastern Kentucky.
"There's nothing improper about it," Rogers said. "It has been my longstanding mission to promote projects that enhance the educational opportunities for everyone in the 5th Congressional District, regardless of where they choose to attend college."