New Ariz. law affirms students’ religious liberties

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

PHOENIX — Arizona public school students may have new rights to express religious views under a bill signed by Gov. Jan Brewer last week.

The Students’ Religious Liberties Act (H.B. 2357) prohibits schools from discriminating against students or parents on the basis of religious viewpoint or expression. It requires that schools not “penalize or reward” students for including religious content or views in a classroom assignment.

The bill also requires that prayer and other religious activities be permitted “to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression.”

Rep. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, sponsored the bill after being approached by the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative think-tank. The legislation came after seventh-grader Deborah Chambers brought an image of Jesus to her Chandler, Ariz., school. Chambers told Arizona State University's Cronkite News Service that another student complained and the principal told her not to bring the image back to school.

Supporters of the legislation say it merely codifies existing case law on religion in public schools.

“Students’ religious expression is already protected by the Constitution, and students’ rights have been upheld in dozens of federal court decisions,” the Center for Arizona Policy wrote on its Web site. “This bill simply distills some of those court decisions into easy-to-read rules so that the law is clear for school officials, parents, and students.”

Opposition from the Arizona School Boards Association prompted Crandall to amend the bill. The amendment allows schools to regulate student speech in general, as long as the schools conform to the state and federal constitutions and laws. It also specifically allows schools to ban student clothing “worn with the intent to convey affiliation with a criminal street gang.” ASBA supported the final version of the bill.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona opposed the bill on the grounds that it favors religious speech over other student expression.

“If the Legislature wants to protect student expression, which has come under increasing attack, it should focus on legislation that protects student expression in all forms,” the organization wrote on its Web site.

The bill allows students and parents to file a lawsuit, but only after following an appeals process with the school principal and district superintendent.

First Amendment Center Online intern Brian Schraum contributed to this story.

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