Virginia Senate Committee Narrowly Approves Bill Protecting Religious Rights of Students

prayerRICHMOND, Va. — A Senate committee in Virginia has narrowly approved a bill that seeks to protect the religious rights of students in public schools.

Senator Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County) recently introduced SB 236 as part of his longtime fight for faith in the public arena. The legislation, passed 7-6 by the state Education and Health Committee on Thursday, reinforces students’ rights to be open about their faith without retribution or restriction.

Text of the bill outlines that it “[c]odifies the right of students to (i) voluntarily pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during, and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression; (ii) organize prayer groups, religious clubs, ‘see you at the pole’ gatherings, or other religious gatherings before, during, and after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other activities and groups; and (iii) wear clothing, accessories, or jewelry that display religious messages or religious symbols in the same manner and to the same extent that other types of clothing, accessories, and jewelry are permitted. ”

It also reiterates students’ rights to speak and write about their faith at school events and in homework assignments, provided that principals issue a disclaimer at events, noting that the views of students do not necessarily reflect those of the school.

Carrico told the Roanoke Times that the legislation additionally shields school officials from lawsuits, since it ensures a differentiation between student speech and government endorsement of religion.

“[SB 236] basically codifies what [schools] should be doing and it takes away liability from them by having them set a policy that the views of the students are not their views, and it allows the students not to be censored during their graduation speeches like some schools do,” he said.

Rita Dunaway, an attorney with the Virginia Christian Alliance, spoke at Thursday’s hearing before the state Education and Health Committee. She advised that the bill is constitutional because it makes no reference to any specific religion.

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“This bill would ensure that school officials remain neutral to religious speech,” she said, according to the Free Lance-Star. “This bill is good for students and it’s good for schools.”

But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia told the committee that the legislation is unnecessary and creates “confusion and conflict.”

“This law is exactly the opposite of what she says it does,” Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastanaga asserted. “It’s either completely unnecessary or it’s dangerous.”

Similar legislation was signed into law in Mississippi last year, as lawmakers approved “The Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013″ by a landslide.

“Due to a misinterpretation of Establishment Clause principles, religious expression has been improperly suppressed by some teachers and administrators,” said sponsor Chris McDaniel (R-Ellisville). “Government should not discriminate against or disfavor religious expression.  Students do not discard their liberties at the schoolhouse door.”

The Virginia bill will now move to the state Senate for a full vote.

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