Bill aims to clarify what religious, political expression is acceptable at Kentucky schools

ACLU watching language on post-secondary education
Bill aims to clarify what religious, political expression is acceptable at Kentucky schools
Posted at 9:56 AM, Feb 23, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-26 08:10:17-05

UNION, Ky. -- A Kentucky Senate bill that appears to give more religious and political freedoms to students and teachers doesn't change much in schools, some school officials said.

Senate Bill 17, which has been approved by the Senate and sent to the House on Feb. 10, looks like it simply clarifies existing laws, said Boone County School Superintendent Randy Poe. On Feb. 21, the bill moved to the House Education Committee. 

The bill may read as if it's laying new groundwork but, for the most part, only a section about post-secondary schools seems to open a door to possible new interpretation, said Amber Duke, Kentucky communication director for the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The vast majority (of the content in the bill) is activity that existing legislation already protects," said Duke.

The ACLU is concerned that the state is taking existing legislation and adding more legislation on the same topic, which can then become confusing, Duke said.

"We're always concerned when new legislation is layered onto existing legislation," she said.
Basically, the bill states that students are allowed to have religious or political student organizations that meet on campus, or wear clothing with religious or political content, if other organizations can meet or other students can wear clothes with messages can be worn.

"If I allow you to wear a shirt that says Nike, I have to allow a shirt that says Jesus Christ," said Poe, but students can't wear clothing with messages now, a common practice in public school.

And, all student organizations that follow the school's rules can meet on campus, he said. That already includes an existing Christian athletes group and some Bible groups.

As far as allowing teachers to use the Bible or other religious books or documents to teach, it's already allowed.  

"Schools have always offered different comparative religions in the context of the standards that are there," said Poe.

Using religion as a discussion point depends on the assignment. "A student can't just go in and start preaching, but if they're asked to write about the most significant thing in their life and they say, 'my faith,' that's OK."

The post-secondary parts of the bill are unclear, said Duke, and the ACLU testified against that portion of the bill when it was in committee.

Some university student government leaders are concerned about the post-secondary content, she said. The bill states that only the organization can solve its disputes and can't be discriminated against "in its determination that only a person committed to its mission should conduct such activities."

That language seems to pre-empt how students, faculty and staff want "to construct a safe and inclusive learning environment for everyone," Duke said.

It's something the ACLU will continue to watch.

Poe said he believes the bill is a response to a Johnson County  school taking heat for eliminating Bible verses quoted in "Charlie Brown's Christmas" in 2015. It was already allowed, said Poe, but this bill makes it pretty clear: "(shall) permit public schools to sponsor artistic or theatrical programs that advance students' knowledge of society's cultural and religious heritage."    

Laws are really for the adults, said Poe, so they don't teach some religious view. "The majority of teachers are a cross-section of the American population and come from all kinds of faiths."

But "if a child want to bring a Bible to school, I'm OK with that," Poe said.  "At the same time, I don't think it should be my Bible."