A Kentucky Republican state senator from London has introduced a bill that he said could have prevented biblical references from being cut from a presentation of A Charlie Brown Christmas at a Johnson County elementary school.
State Sen. Albert Robinson said Senate Bill 15 is wide-ranging and relates to the expression of religious or political viewpoints in public schools and public postsecondary institutions.
He said the provision in the legislation that addresses the Charlie Brown Christmas issue says: “Consistent with its obligations to respect the rights secured by the Constitutions of the United States of America and the Commonwealth of Kentucky, 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.”
In December, when students performed the play at W.R. Castle Elementary School in Johnson County, the scene in which the character Linus quotes lines from the Bible was deleted.
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At the time, Johnson County Schools Superintendent Thomas Salyer told the Herald-Leader that district officials had received a complaint about religious references in Christmas programs at schools, and that the programs across the district were being reviewed for possible modifications of religious references. That news had led people to protest outside school district offices . Ultimately, when the children performed the play, people in the audience recited the lines that had been cut.
Salyer released a message that said in part:
“ The U.S. Supreme Court and the 6th Circuit are very clear that public school staff may not endorse any religion when acting in their official capacities and during school activities. However, our district is fully committed to promote the spirit of giving and concern for our fellow citizens that help define the Christmas holiday.”
In the play, Linus recites passages from the Bible: “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger. And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.’”
Robinson said his legislation makes clear that public schools may allow such language in a school play,
“All of these rights are already there in the U.S. and state constitution,” he said. “We’re making it plain” for students and school officials.
Senate Bill 15 also would permit 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 noninstructional time, allow use of school media to announce student religious meetings, and allow student religious groups to meetbefore and after school.
Among many provisions, the bill would require annual notification to local school boards, school-based decision-making councils, and certified employees of statutes pertaining to religious freedom and expression in schools, and would require governing boards of public postsecondary institutions to ensure that students are permitted to express religious or political viewpoints in assignments.
Robinson said that except for the new reference to school plays, he had introduced similar legislation in the past, but House leadership didn’t allow a vote on it.
On Wednesday, House Speaker Greg Stumbo said, “If it is constitutional, I don’t have a problem with it. Like all Senate legislation, though, we will review it once we receive it in the House.”
ACLU spokeswoman Amber Duke responded to the bill Wednesday.
“There is nothing inherently wrong or unlawful with students engaging in artistic and theatrical performances that have religious themes,” Duke said. “The problem is when public school officials use those endeavors to promote religion over non-religion, or to promote one particular religious view over others. In short, SB15 is a solution in search of a problem.”