RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina House of Representatives has passed a bill protecting students’ rights to religious expression, and allowing teachers and other staff members to voluntary participate in student prayers before or after school.
According to reports, SB 370 was presented in response to a recent situation where an elementary school student was prohibited from reading a self-penned poem to her class because it contained a religious reference. The student’s poem centered on her grandfather’s service in WWII, but also cited his prayers for protection.
The bill passed by the House of Wednesday ensures that students are free to “[e]xpress religious viewpoints in a public school to the same extent and under the same circumstances as a student is permitted to express viewpoints on nonreligious topics or subjects in the school.” It also guarantees students the right to pray and distribute faith-based material.
“[Students may] express beliefs about religion in homework, artwork and other written or oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of the submission,” it reads. “Homework and classroom assignments shall be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the local board of education. A student shall not be penalized or rewarded based on the religious content of the student’s work.”
In addition to protecting the rights of students, SB 370 also allows school officials to participate in student-led prayers without punishment.
“Local boards of education may not prohibit school personnel from participating in religious activities on school grounds that are initiated by students at reasonable times before or after the instructional day so long as such activities are voluntary for all parties and do not conflict with the responsibilities or assignments of such personnel,” it reads.
But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina has expressed concerns about the legislation, stating that it is unnecessary because students already have the right to religious expression. It also takes issue with the provision to allow teachers to join with students in prayer.
“If a group of students on a team wanted to pray, that’s fine,” ACLU Policy Director Sarah Preston told Time Warner Cable News. “The problem is when you start to have teachers being involved in that somehow. It really does convey the message to the students that they are approving of and endorsing one religion over another religion, and so if you do have people on the team who are of a minority belief, they’re going to feel left out.”
However, sponsor Senator Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell County) stated that the bill was indeed expedient, due to reports from Christian personnel who have been barred from exercising their faith voluntarily.
“Coaches and teachers and others [are] coming forward who are being told they can’t even be present when students are praying or they can’t be respectful of what students are doing when they’re expressing their religious faith,” Hise said. “That’s why this bill became necessary, so we could make clear the school boards across the state don’t have policies that prohibit someone from expressing their religious views.”
SB 370 must now be approved by the Senate. It is expected to pass and move to the desk of Gov. Pat McCrory.
Photo: Jim Bauer