By Sabrina Holcomb
2017 is barely underway and it’s already a banner year for legislative attacks on the rights of LGBT people—with so-called religious freedom bills making a strong comeback. Advocacy groups have tracked over 120 anti-LGBT bills introduced in 30 states in every region of the country—most of which will have a significant impact on young people.
South Dakota had the dubious distinction of becoming the first state this year to sign discriminatory legislation into law, making it legal for taxpayer-funded adoption and foster care agencies to discriminate against children and prospective parents on the basis of religious beliefs. Bottom line: they can refuse to place children with loving LGBT relatives and send them off with strangers instead.
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Virginia and Kentucky quickly followed with their own “religious freedom” bills. Although Virginia’s bill was vetoed, Kentucky’s bill—which allows student clubs in public universities and schools to reject LGBTQ students based on religious objections—has passed.
“I think we’re seeing more ‘religious freedom’ bills because they’re considered easier to pass than ‘bathrooms bills’,” observes Kentucky teacher Josh Kumm.
Nevertheless, one of the consequences of these bills is the “false contrast they set up between religious and LGBT students,” says Human Rights Campaign (HRC) legal director Sarah Warbelow. “Lots of LGBT people are people of faith, and lots of people of faith support basic rights for LGBT people. Of course private groups should have the freedom to express religious viewpoints, but the idea of excluding LGBT students from a public school club or activity is really problematic.”
It’s early yet to predict the impact that type of exclusion will have on Kentucky’s students notes Kumm, but educators are finding that “proactive advocacy is a powerful way to reassure and support students instead of waiting for something bad to happen.”
As soon as Senate Bill 17 passed, the Kentucky Education Association sprang into action, urging local affiliates to issue public proclamations of support gender-inclusive language recommended by LGBT advocacy organizations and NEA’s Schools in Transition guide.
“We want every student to know we respect who you are as an individual and accept you as part of our school family,” declares Kumm.
A member of the Jefferson County Teacher’s Association (JCTA), Kumm also serves on an LGBTQ advisory committee under the school district’s department of equity and diversity. He credits the department for its strong support of LGBT rights and JCTA for taking an active role in re-establishing the advisory committee and “making sure it has teeth.”
The committee has been instrumental in establishing Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) in high schools throughout the district and is working on launching GSA programs in middle schools as well in an effort to create safe spaces for younger students. They’re also responsible for JCTA’s first-ever LGBT summit and a booth at last summer’s gay pride event staffed by a school board member and the local school superintendent.
Forming broad-based alliances like these is a smart move for educators notes HRC’s Warbelow. She cites pushback in states like Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee, and Georgia where a broad cross section of Americans—not only individuals, but education organizations, businesses and child welfare agencies—are speaking out against religious objection bills that allow public institutions to discriminate against LGBT citizens. Warbelow also advises educators to reach out to their state legislators and governors to educate them about the importance of inclusive school environments and the impact of discriminatory legislation that ties the hands of school staff.
Kumm can testify that strategies like these have helped his district make great strides in the face of renewed attacks on LGBT rights.
“We have students who now have the ability to have their preferred gender and name listed on class rosters and a form that allows them to do so,” he says. “We have teachers who are transitioning who are able to talk safely with administrators without fear of being fired. This kind of progress is the result of the state affiliate, local affiliate, and the district working together. This is what a good union does for students.”