HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- The Kentucky Senate passed a bill Friday that would protect religious and political expression in public schools and universities, but the move raised concern over discrimination among some minorities and LGBTQ advocates.
If enacted, Senate Bill 17 would protect students' religious and political freedoms while in school -- including allowing student organizations to dictate their internal affairs.
However, some say the bill could encourage members of religious groups to discriminate against students for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Bonnie Meyer, of Covington, is president of Northern Kentucky Fairness, a nonprofit that advocates for equality for all Northern Kentucky residents. Meyer said the legislation is unnecessary, as freedom of religion is already protected under the Constitution.
“When you see bills like this -- legislation like this -- pop up, then you wonder why,” Meyer said. “When you look at other states and other situations, you can see that often times legislation that is proposed like this creates additional means for people to be emboldened to use religion in discriminatory sorts of ways.
“That is the concern with this bill in particular for LGBTQ students.”
Former Kentucky Sen. Jack Westwood supports Senate Bill 17.
Westwood, a policy analyst with The Family Foundation, an organization that aims to uphold the “cherished status and integrity of the traditional family,” said the bill protects the freedom of expression of all students.
“I think actually it protects from discrimination,” Westwood said. “What it says is, they’re only allowed to do these freedom of expression positions to the extent that other organizations are allowed to have it.”
But Meyer believes the bill will only encourage the exclusion of LGBTQ students.
“So we create this club on campus or in our high school, but if you identify as gay, or lesbian, or trans, or bisexual, or questioning or queer, then you can’t be part of this group, and that’s what this sort of legislation opens up,” Meyer said.
Westwood said the bill only further protects students’ rights to be able to express their political and religious views in school.
“There are cases around the country where you will hear and read about students who are told they’re not allowed to express their political or religious positions … I think that really stifles students’ rights, freedom of speech, the First Amendment. But it also stifles open dialogue,” Westwood said.
Meyer is especially worried about the impact the bill will have on the commonwealth’s public universities.
“You have a community there of folks who work together, who learn together, who grow together,” Meyer said. “We have, in all of those institutions, administrators who are aware of the unique needs of their faculty, and their staff, and their students and the greater community, and bills like this … would nullify conduct and regulations that are already in place by an institution.”
The bill would allow student organizations to not be discriminated against when determining their internal affairs. While some, like Meyer, feel this will create exclusion, Westwood said organizations should be able to dictate internal operations.
“I think every organization should have the right to determine its inner policies, its leadership, its make-up, its mission,” Westwood said. “It’d be like having a Democrat club on a campus and somebody comes in and says, ‘I want to be in your club. I’m a Republican. I’m a die-hard Republican. I’m a Trumpster. I want to be president, and you have to allow me to lead it.’
“That seems kind of counterproductive to what the organization’s all about. I think, again, every organization should be allowed to maintain its control of leadership and policy and mission as much as any other without discrimination.”
Noah Pittinger, a sophomore at Northern Kentucky University, is concerned the bill will only increase divides that are already existing.
“I’m already aware of people within the LGBTQ community who … are interested in being part of a religious affiliation, but are worried about discrimination so it turns them away,” Pittinger said.
Pittinger, who is involved with NKU’s Office of LGBTQ Programs and Services, said even if the bill is enacted, it may not have much impact at NKU.
“It’s disappointing to see people try to push for this kind of discrimination in legal forms, but the nice thing is that, especially here at Northern Kentucky University, we have a very supportive community,” Pittinger said.
But Pittinger said that other universities in the commonwealth may not be as dedicated to inclusivity.
“I’m sure that there are plenty of other institutions that don’t have those kinds of safeguards, and so it would be a lot easier for groups to discriminate against particular minorities,” Pittinger said.
Westwood said the bill isn’t asking for anything that isn’t already permitted.
“I think a lot free speech is stifled primarily because administrators may not know that it is constitutional … rather than go too close to the line, they just stay far, far from the line, and as a result a lot of students are told, or maybe intimidated, or wrongly subjected to the idea that they can’t open their Bible in class, they can’t pray before their meals, and that sort of thing,” Westwood said.
Meyer’s biggest fear is the bill will inhibit young people from being who they truly are.
“Our youth are paying attention,” Meyer said. “They’re afraid. It’s unfortunate that we reached a point in this country where we saw more, and more, and more youth feeling like we were in a place where they could come out and they could be supported, and every single time we see additional legislation proposed.
“My concern ultimately for our youth is that this is just going to make it more difficult for them to be who they are, for them to feel supported and safe in one of the places they should always feel supported and safe, and that is school.”
Despite her concerns, Meyer is confident Kentucky can move toward equality.
“As a person who’s here in Kentucky and proud to be a Kentuckian, what I want to say is, ‘This is not the way that it is in our commonwealth,’” Meyer said.
“There are people who have very loud voices who are able to create a lot of noise around this issue, but when you get down to it, I believe that Kentuckians are for fairness, Kentuckians are for equity, and that voice will continue to be heard.”
Senate Bill 17 will go to the House for consideration.