Kentucky Governor Signs Law Permitting Religion, Potential Discrimination In Schools

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R)  in March signed into law a so-called religious freedom bill purportedly intended to broaden student expression of religion in schools.

But LGBTQ advocates were quick to point out one provision of Senate Bill 17 could lead to student groups discriminating against LGBTQ students and others.

The bill states that no “religious or political organization (can be) hindered or discriminated against in the ordering of its internal affairs (or) selection of leaders and members.”

AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett also noted other problems with the bill in a letter asking Bevin to veto it. She explained its excessive attempts to protect religious expression in public schools were unnecessary, confusing and coun­­ter­­pro­duc­tive.

The bill allows students to engage in student-led, voluntary prayer and religious speech; grant religious clubs and organizations the same access to school facilities and amenities as secular groups; and authorize educators to teach about religion, the Bible and other religious texts.

Garrett noted the Constitution and federal laws already protect students’ rights to voluntarily pray and express religious viewpoints, and religious student groups already are granted equal access to school facilities. However, students cannot proselytize in schools – something SB17 does not clarify. And the Supreme Court has found that even student-initiated prayers at school events are coercive to a captive audience and therefore unconstitutional.

“This bill would open the door to students using class time to proselytize and advance their own religious view on fellow classmates who may not share the same religious beliefs,” Garrett wrote. “When pray­ers, evangelism, or anti-religious speech take place within classrooms, students are a captive audience and thus are coerced to participate in religious exercise.”

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Albert Robinson (R-Dist. 21), who said he was inspired to introduce it in response to a school district that allegedly removed a Bible verse from a production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The bill received nearly unanimous support in both chambers of Kentucky’s Legislature.