State Sen. Albert Robinson, who has a penchant for putting his conservative religious views into legislation, said he is baffled by national headlines about a new state law he sponsored that critics say allows discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people.
“I’m not worried about the criticism or a possible threat of a lawsuit against it,” Robinson, R-London, said Tuesday in a phone interview. “Everything in it is consistent with the state and federal constitutions. I’m afraid these are just desperate people.”
Earlier this week, the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest civil rights organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, criticized Republican Gov. Matt Bevin for signing Senate Bill 17 into law. It takes effect this summer.
The group said the law will allow student organizations at public colleges, universities, and high schools in Kentucky to bar LGBTQ students from joining.
“Governor Bevin’s shameful decision to sign this discriminatory bill into law jeopardizes non-discrimination policies at public high schools, colleges, and universities,” HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said in a news release.
The Hill newspaper in Washington D.C. reported Tuesday that the measure opens “a new front in a national battle over so-called religious freedom laws.”
Robinson, who said he has been contacted by several national media outlets for interviews since Bevin signed the bill last Thursday, said he filed the measure “primarily to give guidance to school officials on religious questions that pop up and want to prevent people of faith from having their political or religious opinions silenced in schools.”
The veteran lawmaker, who is a Pentecostal, said he was upset with a 2015 decision in Johnson County to remove the biblical account of Jesus’ birth from a student production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
“It was never designed to discriminate against anyone,” said Robinson, who has previously pushed legislation to put copies of the Ten Commandments in public places and attach “In God We Trust” signs on the state’s seal and display them in legislative committee rooms.
LGBTQ groups are upset about a provision in the law that makes clear student religious groups can determine rules for membership.
In particular, the law says local boards of education must ensure that “no recognized religious or political student organization is hindered or discriminated against in the ordering of its internal affairs, selection of leaders and members, defining of doctrines and principles, and resolving of organizational disputes in the furtherance of its mission, or in its determination that only persons committed to its mission should conduct these activities.”
Critics contend this could lead to discrimination, allowing student organizations to ban students who are gay under the guise of religion.
“I don’t think that will be the case,” said Robinson. “I would think that it would still remain that student organizations receiving financial help from the school would not discriminate against students.”
For example, Robinson said, a political club in a school would be open to anyone, but most people would expect it to only attract members of that particular political party.
“If there were a Bible club, I would hope they would welcome anyone with love,” he said. “Again, I’m just saying that religious groups have rights, too.”
Robinson added that anyone who attends a conservative Bible group should realize that it would teach that homosexuality is a sin.
State Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, opposed the bill when it won approval in the House on March 6.
Under the bill, “you could keep someone out because of their gender, race, sexual lifestyle,” he said Tuesday.
He called the new law “feel-good legislation — that’s when a lawmaker pushes a bill to make his constituents back home feel good.”
The Kentucky Equality Foundation, an umbrella organization for LGBTQ civil rights in Kentucky, said in a news release Tuesday that it plans to challenge the law in court as soon as it finds “a victim who has been discriminated against.”
“We will not be silenced, and we will not accept whatever legislative agendas our elected officials attempt to force upon us should they violate anyone’s civil liberties,” said Jordan Palmer, the secretary general of the group.
Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst for the Lexington-based The Family Foundation, said he thinks the new law simply ensures that religious organizations in schools can require their elected leaders to be members of the groups’ faith.
“It provides that a Christian group can have a Christian president and a Muslim group can have a Muslim president,” Cothran said.
This practice is already allowed under the law, he said.
“I see no discrimination in it unless you call religious freedom discrimination,” he said. “It looks like some people on the far left are trying to stir up things.”
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.”
It 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.
The ACLU of Kentucky has said existing laws already protect students from religious discrimination.