Education

The Kentucky Senate judiciary committee moved a bill forward Thursday that would allow parents to sue if they believe the government is interfering in their parental rights. Opponents worry it would make it harder for social workers to remove children from unsafe home environments.

The bill, Senate Bill 40, is the latest attempt by Republican Sen. Stephen West to pass the proposal. Similar legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2019 and 2020, but never received a vote on the Senate floor.

West told the committee he’s proposing the legislation because of attempts “across the country” by “states and others to delve into the area of parental rights.” 

“Although I don’t see a lot of problems in Kentucky right now, there are a few problems—not a lot—this is really a pre-emptive attempt to stop things that may be coming along,” he said. 

West did not further describe the “problems” he referenced. But in explaining the 2019 version of the bill, the conservative, religious Family Foundation warned that “just north of Kentucky (in Cincinnati) a liberal judge removed a 17-year-old girl from her parents because they were against a sex change operation that she wanted.”

In that 2018 case, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit filed by the parents who were trying to stop their trans teenage son from seeking hormone therapy. The judge ruled social workers acted appropriately when they supported a hospital’s decision to hold the teen without consent from his parents while he sought treatment for gender dysphoria.

West’s bill declares parental rights protected under the U.S. Constitution and says that governmental bodies must show a “compelling governmental interest” for interfering in a parents’ right to determine their child’s “care, custody and control,” as well as their education. 

Sen. Karen Berg, a Louisville Democrat, was the sole “no” vote in committee. She was concerned the legislation could discourage social workers from removing children from unsafe homes.

“Particularly in this state at this time, when we are dealing with the crisis of addiction and have so many children in states that need to be improved … I think this could have a chilling effect, and I’m worried about it,” Berg said.

Kentucky has had the nation’s highest rate of child mistreatment for the last three years.

Sen. Danny Carroll, a Benton Republican, did not vote in committee because he joined remotely, but he opposed the legislation over concerns it could deter adults outside the family unit from intervening and providing care to children whose parents are uninvolved.

The ACLU of Kentucky and the Fairness Campaign, a LGTBQ advocacy group, sent letters to the committee opposing the legislation, saying the bill could “tie officials’ hands in enforcing child abuse and other child welfare laws.”

The ACLU and the Fairness Campaign also say the bill could impede education efforts.

“Depending on how various groups interpret this bill, it could result in families blocking curricula they find objectionable, including on the Holocaust, Biblical influences in literature or other historical items constituents may find uncomfortable.”

The bill comes at a time when states across the U.S. are banning or attempting to rein in discussions on systemic racism in schools, on the grounds that such discussions cause discomfort for students or are forms of leftist indoctrination.

Fueled by a conservative backlash against anti-racist curriculum in schools, Republican governors, state lawmakers and members of Congress have recently pushed their own versions of a “parental bills of rights,” which would require schools to give families more access to and control over curriculum materials. 

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.