FRANKFORT — A bill that aims to better protect children from being bullied because of their sexual orientation, race or religion may not get another vote despite near unanimous approval from a House committee earlier this week.
Two Republican lawmakers have added three floor amendments to the bill, one of which would allow those with concealed weapons permits to carry guns at the state's public universities and trade schools and keep those guns in their cars. Two other amendments would make clear that students who are stating their religious beliefs about gays and lesbians would not be punished for bullying.
"I'm favorably inclined toward the bill, but the amendments may cause it not to be considered," said House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.
House Bill 370 was approved by the House Education Committee by a 21-1 vote on Tuesday after three students told the committee about harassment and bullying they had suffered because they were gay.
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Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville, the bill's sponsor, said she's heard from some House members who are concerned because the bill singles out sexual orientation as a reason students can't be bullied. Kentucky already has a law that requires public schools to create anti-bullying policies and to report potential felonies involving bullying to police.
"I'm going to have to get some people to make some phone calls" to drum up support from other lawmakers, Marzian said on Friday.
Supporters of HB 370 said they hope the measure can be voted on by the full House on Monday. With only eight working days left in the legislative session, time is running out for the bill to be heard in the Republican-controlled Senate, where it faces even longer odds.
Republican Rep. Mike Harmon of Danville, who sponsored two of the floor amendments and is running for lieutenant governor, said his proposals were not meant to kill the bill, although he's not sure it is needed since existing anti-bullying laws apply to everyone.
"This is a bill about bullying. It should not be about silencing someone's religious beliefs," Harmon said.
One of his amendments would clarify that a school's code of conduct "shall not prohibit any student from expressing their personal religious beliefs as long as that expression does not include physically harming a student or damaging a student's property."
Another amendment, sponsored by Rep. Tim Moore, R-Elizabethtown, would "clarify that nothing in this Act shall be construed to prohibit or deny the civil expression by any student of religiously based opinions on issues related to sexual orientation."
Michael Aldridge, executive director of the ACLU of Kentucky, said the amendment sponsored by Moore simply clarifies that a student has a right to express his or her religious beliefs, which is already protected under the Constitution.
Marzian agreed that Moore's amendment is not problematic. But Harmon's amendment could be interpreted to mean that it's acceptable to verbally harass someone because of their sexual identity, she said.
"It's not okay to verbally abuse someone because of your religious beliefs," Aldridge said.
Harmon has also sponsored an amendment that would allow those with a concealed weapons permit to keep a concealed weapon in their cars at public universities.
A majority of the 100-member House would have to vote to approve the amendment before it could be attached to the bill. Or House leadership could decide that the gun amendment was not germane to the rest of the bill and rule the amendment out of order, Aldridge said.
Marzian said she believes the gun amendment is not germane and that it would be easy to challenge using parliamentary procedures. She's also hopeful that Harmon's other "unfriendly" amendment can be defeated.
Although state lawmakers approved an anti-bullying measure in 2008, students who testified before the House Education Committee on Tuesday said they felt their complaints about brutality were ignored by some administrators because they were gay.
Aldridge said language that prohibits discrimination or harassment because of race, religion, sexual identity or physical or mental disability was obviously needed because so many kids continue to be bullied.
Marzian said many children with physical and mental disabilities also are harassed and teased daily.
"We have the ability to give administrators another tool to stop bullying," Aldridge said. "Sometimes you have to be more specific in order to be able to administer or enforce these laws more fully."