FRANKFORT – (TNS) A House bill prohibiting a school district from punishing an employee for engaging in private religious expression was approved by the Senate Education committee Tuesday.

Under the legislation, while a school district employee is on duty, the employee can engage in religious expression and discussions and share religious materials with other employees in the same manner that employees are allowed to engage in nonreligious expression and discussions.

School employees can work as a sponsor of student religious groups and help students to plan meetings and activities to the same extent as employee sponsors of nonreligious student groups.

State Rep. Chris Fugate, R-Chavies, who sponsored House Bill 547, said it protects the religious freedom of public school staff. The bill, which was approved 7-1 with one committee member passing on the vote. It now goes to the full Senate.

“Faculty will have the right to express their faith. They may sponsor student religious activities and they are protected from coercion and threats by government officials,” Fugate said.

They can engage in religious expression and share religious materials with other school employees outside the scope of their job duties, Fugate said.

State Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, said he thought under the law, off-duty school employees could already express their faith to fellow staff. He said he voted no because he thought the bill went too far.

Fugate responded the bill should not be necessary in Kentucky, but because of criticism from out of state groups, some Christian employees fear lawsuits.

Kungu Njungua a policy strategist for the ACLU of Kentucky, said under the U.S. Constitution, church and state should be separate. He said case law is clear that teachers cannot endorse or promote a religion. He said House Bill 547 is likely unconstitutional and invites costly litigation.

Under the bill, “on duty” means those times when a school district employee is required by the district to be on campus or at another designated location and required to perform the scope of the employee’s duties or acting as a representative of the school district.

The legislation says the school district shall not prohibit an employee from, or punish an employee for, engaging in private religious expression otherwise protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution unless an employee has engaged in actual coercion.

Under the bill, school employees can decorate their desk and other personal spaces with personal items that reflect their religious beliefs.

Michael Johnson of the Family Foundation asked lawmakers to approve the bill, saying it gave school personnel clarity and protects their ability to “live out their faiths.”