Student expression bill heads to Senate floor after passing committee 12-1

01/28/2016 05:09 PM

FRANKFORT — Legislation that would codify protections for religious and political speech in public schools was sent to the Senate floor on Thursday.

The Senate Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection Committee approved Senate Bill 15 on a 12-1 vote.

SB 15 would prevent school districts from barring the expression of religious and political views on school property, at functions and in classwork at public schools and universities. Teachers also would be allowed to use the Bible and other scriptures in secular studies, such as the history of religion, under the legislation.

Sen. Albert Robinson sponsored a similar bill in last year’s session, but he highlighted a Johnson County elementary school’s decision in December to cut biblical references from a school performance of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in testifying for SB 15. School officials made the move after receiving complaints, he said.

“‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ has been part of America’s holiday season for decades and is certainly part of American culture and there truly is no constitutional reason that students can’t perform all of the play just because of the reading of scripture,” said Robinson, R-London.

Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville, was the lone vote against SB 15, saying the legislation is unnecessary because the U.S. and Kentucky constitutions protect such expressions.

But Robinson said SB 15 would be a reminder for school officials when facing questions on how religious and political speech should be handled.

Sen. Julian Carroll said the Bible can be a valuable teaching tool for children, especially in moral lessons.

“Who defines what morality means?” asked Carroll, D-Frankfort. “It all depends on your own personal faith in whichever religion in which you might be involved, and so the issue really is not what can and cannot be taught in the school system. The issue is what does a teacher or an individual in the school system have some fear that they don’t want to cross that line.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky didn’t testify at today’s committee, but that group, like Clark, said Senate Bill 15 is redundant.

“SB15 is unnecessary because the First Amendment already protects students’ voluntary ability to pray and express religious viewpoints,” ACLU Program Director Derek Selznik said in a statement. “This proposal, while dressed in new rhetoric, is an attempt to allow unconstitutional state-sponsored prayer and proselytizing in public schools.”

Robinson’s student expression bill passed the Senate in a 30-4 vote last year only to die in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.

Robinson says SB 15 has a better shot this year with the House down to a 50-46 Democratic majority, saying it would pass if the House’s leadership would allow a floor vote on the bill.

“This is indeed something that if they do vote against this, I’m sure that it will be mentioned several times in this November election by people in these districts,” Robinson said, predicting that up to 75 percent of Kentucky voters support measures like SB 15.

Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst for the Family Foundation of Kentucky, said SB 15 and religious freedom issues in general will be an important topic in this year’s General Assembly.

Cothran said he would like to see the House take up religious freedom bills.

While his group doesn’t endorse candidates, the Family Foundation of Kentucky does educate voters on positions held by candidates.

Cothran, similar to Robinson, said voting on religious freedom legislation would help in that cause in this year’s legislative races.

“I think it would be wise for everybody to get some legislation passed this session on religious freedom to make sure that everyone understands where we are on it, and that could end up being an issue in races this fall,” he said.

“But, you know, a bill might help to defuse some of that.”

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Robinson’s bill could fare well in his chamber as long as it’s constitutional.


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