New Kentucky Bill Would Expand Religious Freedom in Schools
In the Bluegrass State of Kentucky, a new bill recently approved by the state's House promises to ensure religious liberty for public school faculty and staff. HB547 would allow voluntary religious programs in public schools free of reprisal.
The bill was inspired by the 2022 landmark Supreme Court decision Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which Washington state high school football coach Joe Kennedy was vindicated for exercising his First Amendment right to personal prayer. Seven years after he was put on leave by the school district, Joseph Kennedy will once again be the assistant football coach for the 2023 season.
Speaking for the 6-3 majority of Supreme Court justices, Justice Neil Gorsuch stated, “The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.” Kennedy v. Bremerton School District overturned a 1962 Supreme Court decision, Engel v. Vitale, which ruled that public schools could not hold prayer, even if participation was not required.
Despite coming on the heels of the Supreme Court’s reinterpretation of the Establishment Clause, the primary sponsor of the bill, Representative Chris Fugate (R), argues that this legislation is necessary to protect against opposition to religious liberty at the state level and to encourage teachers and coaches to exercise their faith.
Fugate, who is a pastor in the Hazard area, asserted, “This is a piece of legislation that will hopefully embolden these Christian teachers, who are not ashamed of their faith, but sometimes out of fear do not say anything about their faith, or hold prayer groups with other teachers.” “It was a sad day in America when the Bible was taken out of schools,” he told the committee.
If the bill becomes law, public school employees would be allowed to sponsor religious clubs, plan religious events, wear religious clothing, symbols, or jewelry, as well as decorate their desks with religious items.
While the bill would enable individuals to practice their faith at work free of worry, it also includes language to protect those who choose not to participate in religious programs. The text states, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize the state or any other governmental organization to: (a) Require any person to participate in prayer or any other religious activity…”
Despite these assurances, other members are less certain that the bill is necessary. Rep. Tina Bojanowski (D) asked, “I know I’ve had conversations about religion with colleagues in my school building. We have a Fellowship of Christian Athletes group. Why do we need this legislation and why isn’t it already covered with the First Amendment and our Constitution?”
“We shouldn’t have to have this bill. But because the United States Constitution is attacked by, again, outside groups from Kentucky, we need this in Kentucky.” Fugate replied.
Donnie Wilkerson, a social studies public-school teacher from Jamestown, Kentucky, commented, “I’m happy to see that my Christian friends now will be able to proudly display the Ten Commandments on their desk if they so choose … that it would also allow my Mormon friends to have their copy of the Book of Mormon should they so decide, or a picture of Joseph Smith or the Main Angel Moroni about their personal space. That my Muslim friends would be able to display the Quran.”
Advocacy Director Kate Miller from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky believes the bill may create a gray area, and schools could see increased litigation if the legislation is passed. The bill now heads to the state Senate after sailing out of the House on a 81-12 vote. Whether the policy will solidify religious liberty at the state level or create increased litigation remains to be seen.