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Missouri Senate education panel discusses Bible, sexuality conversations in schools

by Anna Campbell | February 8, 2023 at 4:02 a.m.
FILE - Republican Missouri state Sen. Mike Moon speaks in his Capitol office on Feb. 1, 2022, in Jefferson City, Mo. K-12 public school teachers and counselors would be largely outlawed from talking about LGBTQ people under a Missouri proposal more restrictive than what critics call Florida's “Don't Say Gay” law. Moon’s bill, which received a Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, committee hearing in the GOP-led Missouri state Senate, is among several filed across the nation this year that are similar to Florida's new law. (AP Photo/David A. Lieb, File)

A Missouri Senate education committee examined a pair of controversial bills Tuesday that would allow courses on the Bible in schools and prohibit conversations about gender identity or sexual orientation without parent permission, respectively.

SB 34, sponsored by Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, would allow school districts to offer an elective social studies unit on the Hebrew scriptures or the Old or New testaments of the Bible. The bill was heard Tuesday by the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee.

"The bill also makes it very clear that the course must maintain religious neutrality, and shall not endorse, favor, promote or show hostility to any particular religion, non-religious faith or religious perspective," May said.

The texts offer students the chance to learn about biblical content that helps them understand society and culture, she said.

Educators and religious leaders weighed in on the proposal.

Brian Kaylor, editor of Word and Way, a Christian magazine, spoke in opposition to the bill.

"By encouraging the teaching of this text and not others, you are playing religious favorites," he said.

Kaylor told the committee the bill could allow an "establishment of religion" in schools. He said that although the phrases "separation of church and state" and "religious liberty" aren't in the First Amendment, the concepts are.

"There are two religion clauses in the First Amendment, and they're in tension. There is tension, and the courts are very clear about the play in the joints ... but we can't swing the pendulum too far in one direction, and I think this bill does that," he said.

Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, said, "I just don't see this argument that this is going to be detrimental for an elective class."

Timothy Faber of the Missouri Baptist Convention spoke in support of the bill.

"(The Hebrew scriptures, Old Testament and New Testament) have been foundational to art, literature, civics and other aspects of western civilization. In many instances, a proper understanding of these other works cannot be had without first having at least a cursory understanding and familiarity with the scriptures," Faber said.

SB 134, sponsored by Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, would prohibit school nurses, counselors, teachers, principals or other personnel at public schools from discussing gender identity or sexual orientation unless they are licensed mental health care providers and have parent permission.

"The media is not telling the truth here," Moon said. "They're purporting this as a 'Don't say gay' bill, which, that's not what this is about. This is protecting vulnerable children and attempting to protect them from conversations that need to be had with the approval of the parent and potentially at home."

Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, questioned whether the bill would prohibit her as a teacher from speaking with her students about her relationship with her husband. Arthur said as she connects with students, they often ask about aspects of her life.

Moon said if a teacher thought they might violate the law, it would be better to seek parent approval before having the conversation.

"I think you're stretching the intent of the bill," he said.

Arthur asked whether teachers could have conversations about sex education or puberty.

Moon said they could under the bill.

Wardsville parent Sarah Fessler testified her child had a private meeting with a counselor on the subject of sexuality. Fessler said parents should be the first to know.

"We're talking about the parents' rights to know what is being taught or what is being said to their kids," Fessler said.

The News Tribune reached out to Fessler, who did not wish to discuss the situation further.

The Blair Oaks School District told the News Tribune that students can access counselors whenever they need to, and the counselor does not always know the topic they want to discuss ahead of time.

"As a result, the counselor is not always able to contact parents prior to meeting with the child. When counseling students, our counselors do not provide specific direction but focus on supporting each student and ensuring they feel safe. Parents are allowed to be involved in the counseling process," the district said.

Those in opposition said the bill would attempt to "erase" LGBT students and teachers and said it was phrased too broadly.

The committee also passed previously heard SB 85, which would make schools with 60 percent local funding exempt from certain state requirements. It also passed SB 137, which would offer a bonus to teachers who participate in civics training. Those two bills now head to the Senate floor.

SB 34: Authorizes school districts to offer elective social studies courses on the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament

Sponsor: Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis

SB 134: Prohibits the discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation by school personnel

Sponsor: Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove


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