Who’s behind Kentucky’s ban on casinos, gay marriage?

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Part 1 of 2- By Scott Wartman

Why have casinos and gay marriage had such a tough time in the Kentucky General Assembly?


That’s the consensus among the Kentucky Baptist Conference and lawmakers themselves, who say the high number of Baptists in the General Assembly can take the blame or credit for Kentucky’s continuing ban on gay marriage and lack of casinos.

Baptists make up 25 percent of the state’s 4.4 million population, but 40 percent of the General Assembly, according to statistics gathered by the 2010 Religious Census by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies and the Kentucky Baptist Convention and Legislative Research Commission.

Almost half the Senate and more than one-third of the House identify as Baptists, with many coming from the rural areas in the eastern, southern, and western parts of the state.

With many Baptists in key leadership positions in the Senate and House – including chairing seven committees in both the House and Senate – that’s had a noticeable impact on what gets passed and what doesn’t.

Some of the notable legislation influenced by Baptists include the General Assembly’s ban on gay marriage that passed in 2004 and why the General Assembly can’t pass legislation to allow for casinos.

Baptists also led the charge on the “religious freedom” bill in 2013 that stated government couldn’t infringe on religious beliefs without “clear and convincing evidence” of the need. Many civil rights groups feared this would lead to discrimination of gay people on religious grounds. Beshear vetoed the bill but the General Assembly overrode the veto.

Not all Baptists agree. Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo also is a Baptist but has supported expanded gambling and other issues that may be at odds with other Baptists.

“Not every elected official that claims to be Baptist would take a biblical stand on issues, but we feel a majority do,” said Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, which represent 2,500 Southern Baptist churches with 750,000 members. “We see favorable outcomes as a result.”

The Baptist influence isn’t heavy elsewhere, with Baptist making up 13.7 percent of Congress and 17 percent of the total adult population of the United States, according to the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project.

Gay marriage a top concern among Baptists

When asked by the Enquirer about their top concern, many Baptist ministers didn’t hesitate when identifying it as stopping the legalization of same-sex marriage.

“I want to see a stronger stance on preserving marriage between a man and woman” said Russell Noss, pastor of Highland Hills Baptist Church in Fort Thomas. “I think we’re muddying the picture of what we believe God intended marriage to be, the relationship between a man and woman.”

A federal judge has overturned the gay marriage ban in Kentucky that passed the General Assembly and a statewide vote in 2004, but Gov. Steve Beshear, the son of a Baptist preacher, has appealed the ruling.

The opposition to gay marriage hasn’t softened among Baptist congregations, said Rev. Todd Toole, pastor of Burlington Baptist Church in Boone County. They can’t support something they believe to be immoral, he said.

“I’d like to see them stay strong against it, but I think that’s for most people in Kentucky,” Toole said. “We are not haters. I know that people have a right to do whatever they choose to do, but if it is up to a vote, we’re going to stand against it.”

The arguments against gay marriage from the Baptists start and end with Bible verses. Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, a Baptist from southeastern Kentucky, quoted Genesis 2:24 that states “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.”

“God’s word is clear this is what is intended,” Westerfield said. “It’s what scripture says. I would have a hard time compromising on something so concrete and well-defined.”

Gay marriage proponents, however, believe the tide has started to shift among conservatives in Kentucky. For the first time, a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation received a hearing in the House. Every year for 15 years it would get ignored in committee. Now, it could pass within five years, said Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville-based gay rights group,

The more people that come out as gay means the more familiar Republicans and Democrats become with the gay community and issues, he said.

“With the modern forms of communication and more and more folks coming out, people have more LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) folks in their lives,” Hampton said.