A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill to protect religious freedom of public school employees clears House Education Committee

By Tom Latek
Kentucky Today

A bill to protect the religious freedom of public school teachers, faculty and staff is on the move in the Kentucky House of Representatives.

The House Education Committee approved House Bill 547 on Tuesday. The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Chris Fugate, R-Chavies, said the bill was inspired by a Supreme Court case that involved a high school football coach in Washington state who was fired for leading a group in prayer after a game.

The State Capitol in Frankfort. (Photo by Frank Peer, Kentucky Today)

“House Bill 547 is a bill that protects the faculty and staff’s religious freedom in public schools,” Fugate said. “It ensures the faculty that they have a right to express their faith. They may sponsor religious activities, student activities. They are protected from coercion and threats by government officials.”

Under HB 547, a public school district employee would be permitted to engage in religious expression and discussion and share religious materials with other employees. The bill would also permit prayer or participation in religious study during breaks, during lunch or before or after school.

Public school employees would also be allowed to sponsor student religious clubs or organizations, plan religious events, wear religious clothing, symbols or jewelry. They would also be permitted to decorate their desks or other personal spaces with personal items that reflect their religious beliefs under HB 547.

A specific provision of the bill clarifies that no one should be required to participate in any prayer or other religious activity.

Rep. Chris Fugate explains a religious freedom bill to a House Education Committee on Tuesday morning. (LRC photo)

Rep. Tina Bojanowski, D-Louisville, asked Fugate to clarify why this legislation is needed in Kentucky.

“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?” Bojanowski asked.

Fugate said HB 547 is needed due to out-of-state groups protesting prayer before football games.

“I hope that this bill shows that the teachers in Kentucky are supported by not only the Kentucky General Assembly but by the Supreme Court of the United States,” Fugate said.

A couple of people expressed concerns about the bill, like Kate Miller, the advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky. She said the bill creates a “gray area” that could cause increased litigation for school districts.

“We hope that the Kentucky General Assembly would consider amending the legislation to be more specifically in line with the Supreme Court decision,” Miller said.

Rep. Kevin Jackson, R-Bowling Green, said he would vote “yes” on HB 547 in committee, but said he is afraid the bill might create a “slippery slope.”

“I just worry sometimes if we’re going to give our teachers and our schools and our educators so many different things that they have to keep up with that we’re going to continue to have a shortage of educators in the state of Kentucky,” Jackson said. “So, again, I want us to be careful.”

Rep. Josie Raymond, D-Louisville, also voted “yes” on HB 547 because she believes “all people should be able to bring their whole selves to work.”

HB 547 will now go before the full House for consideration.

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