Virginia House Subcommittee Halts Student Religious Freedom Bill

prayerRICHMOND, Va. — A House subcommittee in Virginia has halted a student religious freedom bill that had advanced through the Senate last month, questioning whether the measure was even necessary.

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 under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution 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.

The Virginia Senate approved the bill late last month, sending the measure on to the Senate. However, on Wednesday, when a House subcommittee considered HB 493, the House version of the student religious freedom bill, legal questions were raised over the necessity and ramifications of the legislation. According to the Lynchburg News & Advance, the measure was officially stalled when none on the panel wished to advance the bill to the full House.

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However, similar legislation was passed with overwhelming support in Mississippi last year, where Governor Phil Bryant signed “The Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013″ into law. While some likewise questioned the necessity of the law upon its proposal, sponsor Mark Formby (R-Jackson) said that the protections needed to be codified as a number of students continue to have their religious rights trampled.

“I keep having parents come to me and complain,” he explained. “This would give clarity to the law.”

As previously reported, the California-based Christian legal organization Advocates for Faith and Freedom told Christian News Network that it has also observed a marked increase in hostility toward Christians in public schools.

“We have seen a dramatic increase of phone calls nationwide as it pertains to kids in public schools who are facing hostility because of their faith,” General Counsel Bob Tyler stated. “[The reports all surround] hostility from teachers and school administrators who are curtailing the students’ free speech rights simply because they’re Christians and they might express a Christian worldview.”

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