No regrets as pastor leaves statehouse seat

by Kristen Lowry/Kentucky Today, posted Thursday, May 26, 2016 (4 years ago)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (BP) -- For more than three decades, Baptist pastor Tom Riner has been fighting for Christian causes in the Kentucky legislature without regard for party politics.

Democratic Rep. Tom Riner, a Baptist pastor in Louisville, speaks to colleagues at the Kentucky statehouse in this February photo. Riner lost his bid for re-election May 17 after 34 years in the legislature.
Kentucky Legislative Research Commission photo
The socially conservative Democrat will wrap up his 34-year statehouse career in January after losing a bid for re-election May 17 to former Louisville Metro Council member Attica Scott.

Riner, 69, had built a reputation on his unyielding principles, which included his refusal to ask for or accept financial contributions in his reelection bid, not wanting to use the power of incumbency to gain an unfair advantage over his challengers.

"I call it the 'golden rule government,'" Riner said. "You think what you would like if you were in the position of the person who had never run before. I tried to make it a more even playing field."

Riner is pastor of Christ Is King Baptist Church, a small Southern Baptist congregation in Louisville. He has been both criticized and praised for his commitment to bringing his Christian faith into the public square.

The boundaries of Riner's district were changed three years ago in redistricting, which may have whittled away some of his core constituency. But he also faced opposition from Democratic colleagues. Pure Politics reported that Louisville Rep. Mary Lou Marzian and former Rep. Eleanor Jordan endorsed Scott as a "real Democrat" and accused Riner of not representing the district's values in a letter to voters.

"For too many years, someone who doesn't share our values has represented this district," they said in a letter. "The current representative is out of touch with the voters of the district on issues like choice, privacy and treating all people fairly regardless of gender or sexual orientation."

Riner said he always voted his conscience -- even when it went against party principles.

In 2006, Riner sponsored legislation that would require members of Kentucky Homeland Security to affirm the existence of an almighty God, and he was instrumental in passing legislation to erect a monument with the Ten Commandments in front of the state capitol.

Most recently, Riner frustrated fellow Democrats by assisting Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis with her legal defense by introducing her to the legal rights group Liberty Counsel after she refused to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples.

Riner also made waves in Frankfort for his role in exposing a sexual harassment case against a fellow Democratic lawmaker -- an action he considers one of the most significant accomplishments of his legislative career.

"I feel that as a Christian, I have a duty to defend the defenseless and to aid those who don't have anyone else to plead their cause," Riner said. "We've had a long history in the state of public corruption, and I think that it becomes ingrained and becomes very difficult to unmask it, talk about it."

Democratic strategist Dale Emmons said Riner has been an advocate for the state's downtrodden.

"He's got nothing to hold his head down about," Emmons said. "He's been a very principled person. He's stood up for people who nobody's lobbying for -- poor people, mentally ill people, convicted felons, trying to help them get their life back together and get a second chance."

Riner acknowledged that some of his beliefs put him on a downhill political ride, but that he felt duty-bound.

"I understood all the possible consequences, but I just felt like that the Lord had put me there for a purpose," he said. "That was one of the reasons I was there, to do things that others wouldn't do, to take risks that others wouldn't take."

Now, Riner said he is taking time to pray for God's direction in the next chapter of his life and to reflect on his years in Frankfort.

"I don't have any regrets," Riner said.

Kristen Lowry writes for the Frankfort bureau of Kentucky Today, a news resource of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
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