What Kentucky’s “Linus Law” Could Mean for LGBTQ People by Luke Perry
Kentucky recently passed Senate Bill 17 that sponsor Albert Robinson claims will affirm students’ constitutional right to express religious and political views in public schools. The impetus was Robinson’s perception that students’ rights were being violated by school officials fearful of being sued, stemming from a situation where references to Jesus were removed from a student production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The scene involved Linus quoting the Gospel of Luke in explaining the true meaning of Christmas.
The school superintendent Thomas Sayler released a statement regarding the decision that said in part:
“The U.S. Supreme Court and the 6th Circuit are very clear that public school staff may not endorse any religion when acting in their official capacities and during school activities. However, our district is fully committed to promote the spirit of giving and concern for our fellow citizens that help define the Christmas holiday.”
Robinson believes the new legislation legally protects school officials, like Sayler, so they don’t have to worry about being sued for producing religious related student activities.
The Human Rights Campaign argues the new “legislation will allow student groups at public high schools, colleges and universities to discriminate against LGBTQ students and use public funds to do so. Their criticisms focus on the provision stating “no recognized religious or political student organization is discriminated against in the ordering of its internal affairs.”
Student groups could internally decide to ban LGBT people on religious or political grounds and be legally protected to do so once the law is enacted this summer. In fact, any politically or religious influenced student group could plausibly ban any individual or group who are not legally protected from discrimination.
The religious should have their free exercise protected under the First Amendment, but this freedom does not extend unfettered into the context of public education. Public schools rightly restrain themselves from endorsing religion because they are legally compelled to by the establishment clause of the First Amendment as government institutions.
Does this restraint extend to not sanctioning a play with explicit definition of the meaning of Christmas? Reasonable arguments can be made on both sides if one overcomes the absurdity of considering a cartoon character an authoritative religious voice. Either way, Kentucky’s response was an ineffective law that creates many more problems than it seeks to solve.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Associate Professor of Government at Utica College.