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Religious, Political Freedom Bill Passes in Kentucky; LGBT Group Concerned

A bill that would that specify in state law that Kentucky’s public school students and public college or university students are allowed to express their religious and political views in their school work, artwork, speeches and other ways is heading to the governor for his signature.

Senate Bill 17, sponsored by Sen. Albert Robinson (R-London), also states that public school students are allowed to display religious messages on their clothes while at school, use school newspapers and public address systems to announce student religious meetings, and distribute political literature on school grounds. And Kentucky public colleges and universities would be prohibited from both unreasonable restrictions on student speech exercised outdoors on campus and from give religious and political organizations “equal access to public forums.”

Rep. Tim Moore (R-Elizabethtown) said SB 17 clarifies that liberties granted by the U.S. and state constitutions will not be denied in Kentucky. 

“We’ve seen in other locales where the clear constitutional right to religious liberty has been imposed upon,” Moore said. “It is right that we in Kentucky make very clear as a body—as our fellows down the hallway have done by an overwhelming bipartisan majority—that we will protect the right to express religious and political viewpoints in public schools and public postsecondary institutions,” said Moore.

SB 17 passed the Senate by a vote of 31-3 on Feb. 10.

Among those voting against the bill was Rep. Jim Wayne (D-Louisville). “At this time in our nation’s history—when we are experiencing so much division, when we are experiencing so much hatred against Jews, Muslims and whoever else is not in the mainstream—I think we need to be really cautious about bills like this,” he said.

The Human Rights Campaign - a D.C.-based organization that lobbies on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) issues - criticized the bill. 

"This discriminatory legislation goes beyond protecting students' already secured First Amendment rights and would allow, in part, student groups, at colleges, universities and high schools to discriminate against LGBTQ students and still receive public funding,” said HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow, in a statement. “We call on Governor Bevin to veto this legislation. All students should have the opportunity to fully participate in school programs, and no public school should have a license to discriminate against LGBTQ students.”

HRC stated that SB 17 undermines inclusive “all comers” policies at public colleges, universities, and now high schools, by allowing student organizations to discriminate against students under the guise of religious freedom. 

SB 17 received final passage by a vote of 81-8.

From the Legislative Research Commission and staff reports