Kentucky’s ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Discriminates Against LGBT Students

Governor Matt Bevin signed a bill last week that allows school clubs and institutions the right to refuse students on grounds of a sincerely held religious belief. But critics argue that the law just acts as a shield for legalized anti-LGBT discrimination.

Known as Senate Bill 17, the legislation†reportedly arose as a reaction to a 2015 incident in which a local school removed a Bible verse from a student production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The isolated event nevertheless led lawmakers to believe that Biblical viewpoints were under threat in the state’s schools.

SB 17, signed quietly by Bevin, states that students must be allowed to “voluntarily express religious or political viewpoints in school assignments free from discrimination.” It also declares that students must be free to display “religious messages on items of clothing,” and claims to ensure that public schools are able “to sponsor artistic or theatrical programs that advance students’ knowledge of society’s cultural and religious heritage.”

In addition, the bill’s text†contains a couple of glaring red flags for LGBT rights advocates (emphasis added):

[The bill requires] local boards of education to ensure that the†selection of student speakers is made in a viewpoint-neutral manner, the student’s prepared remarks are not altered before delivery without student’s consent, religious and political organizations are allowed equal access to public forums on the same basis as nonreligious and nonpolitical organizations, and no recognized religious or political student organization is discriminated against in the ordering of its internal affairs… .

Notably, most of the rights listed in this bill are already protected under the law. That’s because individual religious viewpoints are a form of protected speech. They do not, however, have to be given a platform in any public school. But this bill seems intent on blurring that line.

Clearly, SB 17 also takes an aggressive swipe at LGBT rights. The bill states that speakers must be chosen in a “neutral view-point manner,” a vague term that leaves much up to interpretation. For instance, this language could mean that a school may be obligated to facilitate speakers who wish to make anti-LGBTQI statements.

Even more alarming for LGBT rights advocates is the latter statement that “no recognized religious or political student organization is discriminated against in the ordering of its internal affairs.” That’s because the language seems to carve out non-discrimination exemptions that give religious clubs the right to pick and choose members based on their own private beliefs.

The Human Rights Campaign notes why this is so problematic:

SB 17 undermines inclusive “all comers”Ě policies at public colleges, universities, and now high schools, by allowing student organizations to discriminate against students under the guise of religion. Many public colleges and universities have long had “all-comers”Ě policies that require student organizations receiving financial and other support from the institution not to discriminate against students based on race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. These policies are important because they allow all members of the student body to participate in students groups and prevent such groups from discriminating against students with state funding. The Supreme Court upheld these all-comers policies as constitutional in the Christian Legal Society v. Martinez decision in 2010.

The danger here is that, on the face of it, SB 17 might sound like a non-issue. After all, the bill doesn’t even mention LGBTQI rights. And during the drafting process, very little discussion took place regarding how this legislation would fit in with the unfolding LGBT rights landscape.

With Senate Bill 17, Kentucky privileges religious rights above a public school’s duty to nondiscrimination, and this could cause some serious harm to students. For example, under this law, schools would be powerless to prevent children from wearing items of clothing with Bible verse that are used to target the LGBT community. Furthermore, school clubs could use religious viewpoints as a shield to simply discriminate against any students they don’t like, thereby segregating them and depriving them of opportunities.

While classes such as race, disability and nationality are shielded under federal law, LGBT students will not even have that protection to fall back on.

Lawmakers may allege that there is no intent to discriminate with this legislation and claim that the only goal is to uphold religious rights. If that was the case, however, a narrowly tailored bill may arguably have been suitable. In reality, Senate Bill 17 provides an opportunity for those who wish to exploit legal loopholes and prevent public schools from serving all students.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

110 comments

Jerome S
Jerome Sabout a year ago

thanks

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Jerome S
Jerome Sabout a year ago

thanks

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Jim V
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for sharing

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Jim V
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for sharing

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Marie W
Marie W1 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago

Karen Swenson, there is proof that Jesus lived just the way the Bible says. Read the historian Josephus. He records the history of Jesus!

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago

Pro-LGBT laws discriminate against our religious freedom!

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Christine V
Christine V2 years ago

Thumbs down Kentucky.

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Karen Swenson
Karen Swenson2 years ago

@Ron G---You know nothing when you study a book that does NOT have proof for anything that it claims. There is NO Proof that Jesus EVER EXISTED. We are asked to take the word of ignorant men, at that time, writing about something they claim happened years and years after the so called fact. Written with so many inconsistencies, cruelties, disgusting justice, male preference, woman hating dictates, as to make a maggot continually gag! The morals and values of the Bible have thankfully been redefined and made more humane. Anyone with a sense of fairness, kindness, equality, would know immediately that the Bible was written and made up by Misogynist Men, as was every single other so called Holy Book....

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Karen H
Karen H2 years ago

If they want to follow their "sincerely held religious belief", they can go to a religious school where they can do whatever they want.

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