Ky.’s religious-freedom clause equals First Amendment protections, state Supreme Court rules in Amish buggy case

The Amish men had served their jail time and the law that put them there has been changed, but a Supreme Court of Kentucky ruling on their appeal still carries weight. The court ruled definitively for the first time that Kentucky’s Constitution doesn’t offer any broader protections of religious liberty than the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The ruling came in the case of conservative Amish men in Western Kentucky convicted in 2008 for refusing to use the bright orange-red safety triangle on their slow-moving buggies. Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a new law to allow them to use white reflective tape instead.

The men objected on religious grounds to using bright colors and to relying on a manmade symbol for safety. Through their lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, they argued that the state constitution offered greater protections than the First Amendment, under which such laws have been upheld if they apply to everybody and aren’t specifically targeting one religious group.

The court disagreed, saying it’s “linguistically impossible” to make a broader protection than the First Amendment.

Here are the relevant texts from the two constitutions:

U.S. Constitution, First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Kentucky Constitution, Section 5:

No preference shall ever be given by law to any religious sect, society or denomination; nor to any particular creed, mode of worship or system of ecclesiastical polity; nor shall any person be compelled to attend any place of worship, to contribute to the erection or maintenance of any such place, or to the salary or support of any minister of religion; nor shall any man be compelled to send his child to any school to which he may be conscientiously opposed; and the civil rights, privileges or capacities of no person shall be taken away, or in anywise diminished or enlarged, on account of his belief or disbelief of any religious tenet, dogma or teaching. No human authority shall, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience.

What do you think? Are they saying the same thing in different words?