FRANKFORT – Throw a stone at the state Legislature, and it’s likely to hit a Baptist.
Nearly half of Kentucky’s senators identify themselves as Baptist, as do nearly a third of the state’s representatives, a little-known fact that sheds light on why a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize casinos has failed year after year.
“I’m thrilled that Baptists from across Kentucky have gotten so involved in the political arena,” said Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, the state’s largest religious group. “Clearly, they realize the dire need to be politically engaged in a way that allows them to take bold stands on moral and biblical issues, including gambling and the sanctity of life. We must be the ‘salt and light’ Jesus calls us to be.”
All other religious groups, including Catholics, are eclipsed by Baptists in the General Assembly, according to a directory compiled by the Legislative Research Commission that includes the religious affiliations of state lawmakers.
“Many of these lawmakers have stood against Gov. Steve Beshear’s efforts to legalize casinos,” said Chitwood, who is engaged in a push by Kentucky’s Christian majority to “put an end to this perennial issue once and for all.”
In the Senate, 16 of the 38 lawmakers identify themselves as Baptist, compared to six who have Catholic ties, five Presbyterian, one Disciples of Christ, one Episcopalian, one Pentecostal, one Assembly of God, one Methodist, and six others who describe themselves as Protestant or Christian.
In the House, 38 of the 100 lawmakers are Baptist compared to 15 who are Catholic, six Methodist, five Church of Christ, four Presbyterian, one Church of God, one Unitarian Universalist, one African Methodist Episcopal, 20 who describe themselves as Protestant or Christian, and six who cite no church affiliation.
“The numbers aren’t surprising, considering Kentucky is home to more than a million Southern Baptists and a larger number of other Baptist groups,” Chitwood said. “That’s a powerful voting bloc that has the capability to change the face of politics in the state.”
Baptists also hold powerful leadership positions in both the House and Senate.
In the Senate, Democratic Caucus Chairman Johnny Ray Turner lists his religious affiliation as Baptist, as does Democratic Whip Jerry Rhoads.
Baptists lead seven Senate committees, including the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee chaired by Independent Bob Leeper of Paducah, the Senate Transportation Committee led by Republican Ernie Harris of Crestwood, the Senate Judiciary Committee led by Republican Whitney Westerfield of Hopkinsville, the Senate Education Committee led by Republican Mike Wilson of Bowling Green, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee led by Republican Jared Carpenter of Berea, the Senate Enrollment Committee led by Republican Sara Beth Gregory of Monticello, and the Senate Economic Development, Tourism and Labor Committee led by Republican Alice Forgy Kerr of Lexington.
Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo identifies himself as Baptist, as does Democratic Floor Leader Rocky Adkins and Republican Floor Leader Jeff Hoover.
Baptists also hold seven chairmanships in the House, including the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee led by Democrat Jim Gooch, the House State Government Committee led by Democrat Brent Yonts of Greenville, the House Economic Development Committee led by Democrat Ruth Ann Palumbo of Lexington, the House Transportation Committee led by Democrat Hubert Collins of Wittensville, the House Enrollment Committee led by Democrat Susan Westrom of Lexington, the House Labor and Industry Committee led by Democrat Rick Nelson of Middlesboro, and the House Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee led by Democrat Darryl Owens of Louisville.
“Holding so many leadership positions gives Baptists incredible sway inside the Capitol,” Chitwood said. “I acknowledge that not all of our Baptist lawmakers take strong stands on moral issues, as Baptists should. For those who don’t, I encourage them to reassess their priorities and hold tightly to biblical principles each time they’re asked to vote or consider introducing new legislation.”