A bill that spells out public students’ religious liberties got strong support in a Senate committee Thursday despite critics’ claims that it is not necessary and could cause legal confusion.
Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said the Senate will vote on the measure Friday and predicted that it has an excellent chance in the House since it is now under Republican control. A similar bill died in the House last year, when it was controlled by Democrats.
Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, introduced the legislation last year after a Johnson County elementary school in December 2015 removed biblical references from a presentation of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
The bill states that “a local board of education shall permit public schools in the district to sponsor artistic or theatrical programs that advance students’ knowledge of society’s cultural and religious heritage, as well as provide opportunities for students to study and perform a wide range of music, literature, poetry and drama.”
Robinson said the bill is constitutional and provides school officials with clear, concise guidance on the religious rights of students. He said it is wide-ranging and covers the expression of religious or political viewpoints in public schools and public universities.
Senate Bill 17 also would allow a teacher to use the Bible when teaching about religion “without providing religious instruction,” and to teach about religious holidays “in a secular manner.”
The proposal permits students to express religious or political viewpoints in school assignments free from discrimination and would allow religious and political organizations equal access to public forums. It would allow students to display religious messages on items of clothing and would allow religious student organizations access to public school property during non-instructional time, allow use of school media to announce student religious meetings and allow student religious groups to meet before and after school.
Martin Cothran with The Family Foundation of Kentucky said the bill spells out specifics to avoid confusion.
But Kate Miller with the ACLU of Kentucky said existing laws already protect students and the bill “will only cause confusion.” It could be hard to distinguish between preaching and teaching in Bible-literacy classes, Miller said.
Derek Penwell, senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church in Louisville, said there was no need for Robinson’s bill, and Karen Hatter, a retired teacher who worked in student theater, said her students often discussed religious topics and she never received a complaint from an administrator or parent.
Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, presented to the committee a letter from student body presidents at Western Kentucky University, University of Louisville and Kentucky Community and Technical College System, who said state and federal constitutions adequately protect students’ rights.
“As such, our diverse student populations are free to contribute their varying thoughts, beliefs, faiths and political ideologies to create our vibrant, inclusive campus environments,” they wrote. “Layering legislation on top of existing procedures could do nothing but cause confusion.”
The Senate Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection Committee voted 12-1 to approve the bill. The only “no” vote came from Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville, who said religious instructions should be given in churches and homes.
“All of this is superfluous,” he said.