Ky. governor signs ‘religious freedom’ bill against LGBT students

Gov. Matt Bevin (R-Ky.) signed a religious freedom bill against LGBT students. (Photo by Gage Skidmore; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

On the same day President Trump came to visit his state for a “Make America Great Again” rally, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin penned his name to a bill allowing student groups at high schools and public colleges to turn away LGBT people out of religious objections.

Motivated in reaction to a school cutting a Bible verse from a student production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Senate Bill 17 was ostensibly intended to protect the religious expression of students. The measure permits them to express religious viewpoints, wear clothing with religious messages and use school media to announce student religious meetings free from discrimination.

But the law, which applies to public schools and public post-secondary institutions, also ensures “no recognized religious or political student organization is discriminated against in the ordering of its internal affairs,” allowing religious groups on campus to turn away LGBT students.

Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the new law jeopardizes non-discrimination policies at public high schools, colleges and universities.

“No student should fear being excluded from a school club or participating in a school activity because they are LGBTQ,” Warbelow added. “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 new law would undermine “all comers” non-discrimination policies at public colleges, universities and high schools in Kentucky prohibiting student groups from refusing membership to other students, such as an LGBT student, based on a discriminatory reason as long as these groups rely on student resaurces. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld these “all-comers” non-discrimination policies in the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, other bills similar to the new Kentucky law pending in state legislatures are House Bill 642 in Missouri, House Bill 174 and Senate Bill 14 in Tennessee and House Bill 428 in Texas.

Bevin quietly signed the measure with a little fanfare and no public statement on his website or Twitter account. Bevin’s office didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on why he signed the measure into law.

The new Kentucky law is similar to a measure Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law last year that also allowed school groups to turn away LGBT students for religious reasons. In contrast to Bevin, Brownback signed the anti-LGBT student bill into law with a signing ceremony surrounded by anti-LGBT activists.

Bevin signs the anti-LGBT student bill in the same month that South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a measure allowing taxpayer-funded adoption agencies to refuse child placement in LGBT families for religious reasons. The two measures were the first anti-LGBT bills to become law this year at a time when a slew of measures are pending before state legislatures that would enable discrimination against LGBT people.

Chris Hartman, director of the Kentucky-based Fairness Campaign, said he’s “disappointed in this new law that can potentially further marginalize LGBT students across Kentucky,” but noted on the whole anti-LGBT measures didn’t move very far in the state. One such measure, House Bill 106, would have prohibited schools in Kentucky from allowing transgender kids to use the restroom consistent with their gender identity.

“Senate Bill 17, which was motivated by the controversy surrounding religious text in a Kentucky high school’s production of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ is redundant, unnecessary, overly broad, and will very likely be implemented incorrectly,” Hartman said.

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