Panel discusses separation of church and state in education

By Phillip Lentsch —

The Kentucky legislature’s introduction of two new education bills has prompted lawyers and administrators to discuss the implications that vouchers and biblical literacy classes have on the state public school system.  

In a March 29 panel, members shared their perspectives on issues that have pervaded the Kentucky school system in a religious context, such as voucher programs that subsidize some private school students’ tuition, sexual education classes and the recent statewide abstinence education bill. 

“It’s important to note that schools can already teach about the Bible and religion in a purely historical context,” ACLU for Kentucky Legal Fellow Heather Gatnarek said. “Where we start to see problems is when the Bible is taught strictly as truth.”

Gatnarek said the ACLU for Kentucky recently initiated an open records request to every school district in Kentucky to disclose their approach to House Bill 128, Bible literacy bill, that passed in the general assembly last year.

Gatnarek said the responses were varied across county lines, however some schools exhibited biblical curriculums Vice Chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education Lisa Willner called “outrageous.”

“When we start to see biblical literacy courses overlap with comprehensive sexual education in public schools, that to me is outrageous,” Willner said. “Abstinence can be taught in a healthy and nonreligious manner.”

State Legislative Councill for Americans United for Separation of Church and State Nik Nartowicz said his main focus is to decrease the number of school vouchers being initiated throughout the state. 

“Vouchers, according to many national studies that we’ve looked at, simply don’t work,” Nartowicz said. “They actually don’t show any increase in performance for public or private schools. They’re not an area of reform, and in fact, you’re just taking public money and sending it to private schools.”

All three panelists agreed the recent bills in the Kentucky state legislature need to be more clear about what constitutes “biblical literacy.”

“If a school wants to teach about the Bible, it has to be in a secular, objective, non-devotional and academic way,” Gatnarek said. “We’re not seeing that in a lot of schools around Kentucky and that in effect disparages students of other faiths and nonreligious students.”

Gatnarek and Willner said their organizations aren’t the only groups that need to remain vigilant of religious encroachment in schools. They agreed that parents and students alike need to communicate with each other what they consider to be in violation of their religious liberties.

“I think that if school boards and districts are aware that parents are paying attention and know where the constitutional lines are, the school districts and their attorneys will be more careful,” Gatnarek said.

“I would encourage parents to attend the numerous site-based decision-making council meetings that correspond to each school district in their county,” Willner said. “Express your views very vocally at these meetings, and let the schools know that your voices matter when it comes to this issue.”

Photo by Bailey Campagna / The Louisville Cardinal

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *