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Ky. bill requiring a ‘moment of silence’ at school passes state House

FRANKFORT, Jan. 23 – Rep. Daniel Fister, R-Versailles, presents House Bill 96, a measure related to moments of silence in Kentucky schools, during Tuesday’s House Education Committee.
Bud Kraft
FRANKFORT, Jan. 23 – Rep. Daniel Fister, R-Versailles, presents House Bill 96, a measure related to moments of silence in Kentucky schools, during Tuesday’s House Education Committee.

A bill that would require students to participate in a “moment of silence” has passed in the Kentucky House of Representatives. Opponents say it’s school prayer by another name.

Every student in Kentucky would be required to begin their school day with a one to two minute moment of silence under the measure passed Wednesday.

House Bill 96 says students can use the time to “meditate, pray, or engage in any other silent activity which does not interfere with, distract from, or impede other pupils' exercise of individual choice.”

Opponents say the legislation is an unnecessary overreach and would institutionalize school prayer in the classroom. Bill sponsor Rep. Daniel Fister, a Republican from Versailles, said it will give kids freedom to do as they will, as long as it's silent, with a parent’s guidance.

“It will require school boards to send home a letter explaining the moment of silence and asking the parent or guardian to instruct that student and how to spend that time,” Fister said.

The bill passed the House with 79 “yes” votes Wednesday and now moves to the Senate for consideration. Fister proposed a basically identical bill in 2022, where it also passed the House but did not progress in the Senate.

U.S. schools can neither restrict a student’s religious expression nor promote any one religion over another because of the First Amendment. A 1962 U.S. Supreme Court ruling clarified that state officials cannot compose an official school prayer or require its use in public schools.

However, state law lets local school districts allow the recitation of the traditional Lord’s prayer in elementary schools, saying that it is an “affirmation of the freedom of religion” in the U.S.

Democratic Rep. Daniel Grossberg from Louisville said the bill could easily open the door for religion to creep further into schools. Grossberg is Jewish, and said he believes the legislation could be used to encroach upon children’s religious freedoms.

“Although I could never live without my faith, I couldn't sleep at night if I thought I was forcing it upon your children. I asked you not to force yours upon ours,” Grossberg said. “This bill is a threat not just to my community, which nearly universally opposes it, but to every dissenting believer in the Commonwealth.”

Louisville Democratic Rep. Tina Bojanowski said students already have ample opportunity to pray throughout the school day.

“This is just a way to push prayer into public schools. However, students can already pray in public schools,” Bojanowski said. “Students are impressionable and their attendance is involuntary … All students should feel welcome in their school, not just those who engage in a particular religious practice.”

The bill restricts any school personnel from instructing students on how to use their time, other than requiring that they remain seated, silent, and unobtrusive to other students. Fister said it would be up to local school boards to decide how they would choose to enforce the moment of silence and if there are punishments for not adhering to the policy.

One legislator besides the sponsor stood to speak in support of the bill on Wednesday. Republican Rep. Tom Smith from Corbin said he believes giving students time to pray at the beginning of the school day would allow God to watch over students and teachers.

“I want to stand on the floor and say I'm proud to be a Christian. Also, I'm proud that my grandkids will have this opportunity,” Smith said. “I think what we're lacking in our schools from years ago is to stand up and pledge allegiance to our flag and to take time to thank God for our day.”

LPM's state government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.