Okla. House OKs bill on religion in schools

Friday, March 15, 2013

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma public school students who express their religious views couldn’t be discriminated against under a bill passed by the House on Thursday, despite concerns from opponents that such protections already exist.

The House voted 79-13 for the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act by Rep. John Bennett, who said the bill is modeled after a Texas law.

“We have the right to religious freedom. Period,” said Bennett, R-Sallisaw. “In public schools, students can hardly mention God one time without being sent to the principal’s office.”

The bill further directs school boards to adopt policies protecting student speakers at school events from being punished for expressing their religious views. The bill also specifically gives religious clubs or prayer groups the same access to school facilities as it does for other student groups.

Rep. Ben Sherrer said students in Oklahoma have plenty of opportunities to express religious viewpoints and that the bill is unnecessary.

“I’ve got news: the sovereign will of God does not need man’s help,” said Sherrer, D-Chouteau. “If God wants administrator-led prayer in school, it will happen. If God wants hymns sung at school board meetings, it will happen. If God wants an altar call at the end of a Homecoming ceremony, it will happen. God does not need our help.”

Ryan Kiesel, the director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the group opposes the bill and that a student’s right to discuss religion already is protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“In Rep. Bennett’s attempt to protect rights that are already protected, he confuses current law and invites the very violations he is allegedly interested in preventing,” Kiesel said in a statement. “We urge the Senate to see this for the political stunt that it is and reject it on arrival.”

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