- Associated Press - Thursday, February 19, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Wading into the volatile issue of invoking God at graduations and ball games, the Kentucky Senate on Thursday passed a bill touted as providing a guide to public schools on the religious and political free-speech protections of students.

A leading supporter, Kent Ostrander, executive director of The Family Foundation, said after the Senate’s 30-4 vote that the bill would put “a stake in the ground for free speech and religious liberty” for students.

“It’s basically to allow students to have the same religious freedom that anybody else has,” he said.

The bill is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky. ACLU Program Director Derek Selznick called it an “unnecessary attempt to overregulate” something protected by the First Amendment - students’ voluntary ability to pray and express religious viewpoints in a “non-disruptive manner” at school.

“By adding more government regulation into the area of students’ free speech rights, the bill will result in needless and costly litigation, particularly over students’ ability to interject religious or political views into school assignments that have nothing to do with either,” he said in a statement.

Passage in the Republican-led Senate sends the bill to the Democratic-run House for consideration. Efforts in recent years to protect religious and political speech of students have stalled in the General Assembly.

Among other things, the bill states that a student shall be permitted to voluntarily pray or engage in religious activities in a public school to the same extent as a student is permitted to engage in nonreligious matters. It says those rights are to be consistent with the state and federal constitutions.

Under those same conditions, the bill says students should be allowed to express religious or political views in the classroom, homework, artwork and other assignments free from discrimination or penalty based on the religious or political content.

It also says that local school boards shall ensure that religious and political organizations are allowed equal access to public forums on the same basis as nonreligious and nonpolitical organizations. A board would do so “consistent with its obligations to respect the rights secured” by the constitutions.

During the short debate on the bill, Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, insisted his bill doesn’t expand rights but seeks to clarify the issue for teachers, school administrators, parents and students.

That prompted Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, to ask why the bill is needed.

“If it doesn’t expand the rights, why are we looking at it?” asked McGarvey, who voted against the bill.

The issue of raising religion on public school campuses made Kentucky headlines in 2011 when the Bell County school district was told that allowing a prayer over the public-address system before football games was unconstitutional. Some fans responded after the decision by wearing T-shirts that said “Let Us Pray.”

Ostrander said the bill would protect all viewpoints.

“This should protect Christian religion, but it should protect all religions and atheists,” he said.

The ACLU warned the bill would block local school boards and public universities from denying funding to student organizations that discriminate based on sexual orientation or religion.

The Senate passed several bills on a day the House was out of session due to the bitter cold that hit Kentucky in the wake of this week’s heavy snow.

___

The legislation is Senate Bill 71.

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