RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia Senate narrowly passed a student religious freedom bill this week, sending the measure on to the House of Delegates for a full vote.
As previously reported, Senator Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County) recently introduced SB 236 as part of his longtime fight for faith in the public arena. The legislation 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.
On Tuesday, state senators were divided over the matter, arguing for half an hour about the proposal. According to Hampton Roads, arguments surrounding the bill were primarily split along party lines.
Senator Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) expressed his opposition to the bill, stating that it would unfairly favor Christianity.
“Prayers are unlikely to be from anything but the majority religion due to sheer numerical superiority,” he said. “This bill amounts to an implicit endorsement by the state of one religion over another.”
But Senator Dick Black (R-Loudon County) disagreed.
“I don’t think there’s anything in the measure that would prevent a Hindu, or a Muslim, or a Jewish student, a Christian student, or indeed a non-religious student from exercising their rights under the bill,” he stated.
Following debate, the bill passed 20-18 in favor of the measure. It will now be sent to the House of Delegates for a vote, and if approved, will then head to the desk of newly-elected Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe.
“Now we’ll see how the governor reacts to it,” Carrico told the Roanoke Times, noting that he expects the legislation to pass the House.
McAuliffe has not yet indicated whether he supports or opposes the bill.