Lawmaker In Kentucky Mixes Piety And Politics

January 3, 2009

Author: Ian Urbina

Source: The New York Times

Tom Riner looks for God everywhere, and in places he does not find him, he tries to put him there.

For more than 30 years, Mr. Riner’s singular devotion has been to inject God into the public arena. It has guided him as he preached the Bible in the countryside of Nicaragua and Jamaica. And it steers him as he proselytizes the formerly homeless and drug-addicted people who live with him at his ramshackle church in one of the poorest sections of this city.

But this unrelenting mission has also frequently taken Mr. Riner and the Kentucky legislature, where he has been a Democratic representative for 26 years, across the constitutional barrier between church and state.

In December, an atheist organization and a group of state residents sued Kentucky over Mr. Riner’s most recent incursion: a 2006 law he sponsored requiring that the state’s homeland security office post a plaque recognizing God’s role in keeping the country safe.

“The church-state divide is not a line I see,” Mr. Riner, a Baptist minister, said of the lawsuit. “What I do see is an attempt to separate America from its history of perceiving itself as a nation under God.”

A mild-mannered man, Mr. Riner, 62, speaks in a near-whisper, clearing his throat with each sentence as though he would prefer to remain quiet. He declined a request to be filmed by a video crew because it would not be in keeping with scriptural teachings about humility, he said apologetically.

And yet, Mr. Riner’s intense and silent stares convey a focused will. His friends and adversaries recall the time in the 1970s when the musical “Hair” first came to this city, and Mr. Riner, upset by its nudity, quietly interrupted the show by climbing on stage, a Bible in hand.

“Tom is as pious as he is persistent,” said State Senator Kathy W. Stein, a Democrat from Lexington. “He’s also prone to legislative stunts that are embarrassing and expensive for this state.”

Since 2002, state and local officials have spent more than $160,000 in legal fees, having lost case after case to the American Civil Liberties Union for posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings, and they still owe $400,000 for a 2005 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that such displays should be removed.