Just last week, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin signed a “religious freedom bill,” Senate Bill 17, into law following the House vote of 81 to 8. The bill was proposed by Kentucky Senator Albert Robinson in response to a school in Johnson County, Kentucky removing a Bible verse from a school drama production of A Charlie Brown Christmas. The purpose of this law is to protect students’ rights to religious liberties by allowing them to express religious beliefs and publicize information about faith based groups. The law states that students are allowed to “voluntarily express religious or political viewpoints in school assignments free from discrimination” and that “religious and political organizations are allowed equal access to public forums on the same basis as nonreligious and nonpolitical organizations.”

When described this way, the bill seems as though it is only protecting students’ First Amendment rights by furthering their ability to express themselves and their religion, however, this has sparked a great deal of controversy because of one section that reads, “no recognized religious or political organization is discriminated against in the ordering of its internal affairs.” This statement gives school groups the right to prohibit LGBTQ students from joining their clubs if it doesn’t align with their religious convictions. The inclusion of this statement turns a bill that is meant to reduce discrimination into one that has the potential of actually creating greater discrimination against other groups. The Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow said,

“Governor Bevin’s shameful decision to sign this discriminatory bill into law jeopardizes nondiscrimination policies at public high schools, colleges, and universities. No student should fear being excluded from a school club or participating in a school activity because they are LGBTQ. While of course private groups should have the freedom to express religious viewpoints, they should not be able to unfairly discriminate with taxpayer funds.”

While it is important that students retain their freedom to express religious beliefs in the way they see fit, doing so in public schools and clubs that should seek to be nondiscriminatory to all groups, doesn’t necessarily facilitate this sort of environment.

It is great when politicians seek to expand constitutional rights, however, this shouldn’t be done at the expense of others. Furthermore, it would seem that Senator Robinson (the founder) is hardly worried about religious freedom being inclusive of all religions, as he is cited saying this as partial reasoning for the bill:

“We know that the Muslims already they can freely express [their beliefs]. They have that constitutional right. They should be able to do that, but we Christians, we’re the ones that have been persecuted and to the point we’ll be prosecuted if we didn’t keep our mouth shut.”

I would question why he thinks that Muslims aren’t being persecuted and why he even had to mention the Muslim faith in this statement. It only highlights more that his primary concern is to seek religious freedom for some and not all.

In the case of Christian Legal Society Chapter v. Martinez in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of “all comers” policies, which prohibit public student organizations from discriminating against students on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. This case may be an indicator that the Kentucky Senate Bill 17 may make its way to the courts, as it seems to offend the precedent that protects the “all comers” policies.

Helpful Links: 

Kentucky Senate Bill 17: http://www.lrc.ky.gov/record/17RS/SB17.htm

Christian Legal Society Chapter v. Martinez: https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/08-1371.ZS.html

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