The Kentucky House of Representatives has passed a bill that would allow students to express their religious and political views in public schools without interference from administrators.
Senate Bill 17 was approved by the state House on Monday by a vote of 81–8. The legislation would prohibit school officials from punishing students who express their religious or political beliefs on their homework, artwork and speeches.
The measure, which passed the Senate on a 31–3 vote last month, is now headed to Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin to be signed into law.
The bill would also allow student organizations to select its members without being hindered by school officials, according to The Associated Press.
Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said that the measure would undermine public school policies that prohibit student organizations from discriminating based on race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Republican House Speaker Jeff Hoover stated that it was the first time he had heard of such concerns. "I can assure you that was not the intent. I don't think it does that," he said.
During the debate on the House floor, supporters of the measure brought up the issue of various high schools in the state that have been threatened with a lawsuit because of prayers before football games.
The bill was partly a response to a decision in 2015 when a Kentucky school district decided to remove Biblical passages from a student performance of "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
State Sen. Albert Robinson (R-London), the bill's sponsor, said that he felt that the legislation was necessary to clarify to educators that biblical references are not forbidden from campus.
The legislation would also allow teachers to provide secular lessons about the Bible, including its role in world history and literature.
"Apparently everybody else has a First Amendment right of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, unless you are talking about Christianity," said Republican state Rep. John Blanton. "We're not trying to indoctrinate people; we are simply trying to enjoy the freedoms that were provided to us when our forefathers wrote the Constitution," he added.
Other lawmakers argued that students are already free to express their religious beliefs, and there was little evidence that they were being suppressed.
Democratic state Rep. Jim Wayne shared his concern that the legislation would allow Christian students to refer to gay students as "sinners."
"It may be a freedom of expression on one person's part, but another person could be bruised and damaged by that expression," he said.
Rep. Joni Jenkins (D-Louisville) contended that lawmakers should not push religion onto campuses. "I believe religion should be expressed in church or in the privacy of my home, not in public schools," she stated.