Metro Weekly

Kentucky governor signs religious freedom of expression bill

Opponents say bill purporting to defend freedom of association will lead to anti-LGBTQ discrimination

Matt Bevin – Photo: Facebook.

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) has signed a bill into law that allows student organizations at public schools and colleges to potentially bar LGBTQ people from joining, reports The Hill.

The law, Senate Bill 17, is being touted as a way to protect public school students from repercussions if they express unpopular religious or political beliefs at school. The bill also bars school officials from interfering with the way religious or political student organizations select their members based on their own principles or religious beliefs.

The legislation, which passed both the House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support, reportedly stems from a 2015 decision to remove references to Jesus Christ from a student production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

But LGBTQ advocates are highly concerned about how the law will be enforced. Under its provisions giving significant leeway to student groups to set their own criteria for membership, they argue, LGBTQ people could see themselves excluded, with no recourse, because of the group’s purported moral principles or religious beliefs.

“No student should fear being excluded from a school club or participating in a school activity because they are LGBTQ,” Sarah Warbelow, the legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “While of course private groups should have the freedom to express religious viewpoints, they should not be able to unfairly discriminate with taxpayer funds.”

The law is one of several being considered by states across the country that LGBTQ advocates are concerned will further discrimination should they pass. Kansas passed a similar measure allowing student groups to restrict membership last year.

Virginia approved a similar law in 2013, but it only extended to student groups at public colleges and universities, not to all public schools in the commonwealth, as does Kentucky’s bill. At the time, several Virginia Democrats voted in favor of the so-called “freedom of association” bill because it was billed as a way to prevent outsiders from disrupting or sabotaging an organization’s core mission, with the example given of a college Republican who seeks to spy on a college Democratic organization. But others argued that was a red herring, and the true intent of the bill was to allow people to refuse admittance to LGBTQ students under the guise of “religious freedom.”

 
John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com