Okla. lawmaker seeks to protect students’ religious viewpoints

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

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Public schools in Oklahoma could not discriminate against student speakers because of their religious viewpoints under a bill called the “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act.”

The measure would allow students to express religious views at high school graduations, football games and even in class assignments.

Introduced for the upcoming legislative session by state Rep. Mike Reynolds, H.B. 1001 provides that “each school district shall adopt a policy, which shall include the establishment of a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events at which a student is to publicly speak.”

Under the policy the school must explain to the audience that “the speech of a student does not reflect the endorsement, sponsorship, position, or expression of the district.”

The measure appears to ensure that public school student speakers at graduations would not be silenced or censored for any religious material in their speeches. This issue has generated controversy in school districts across the country, and led to many lawsuits with different outcomes.

Some courts have determined that school officials could silence student speakers for their religious content because of establishment-clause concerns — the fear that the school would be seen as endorsing religion. However, other courts — such as the Montana Supreme Court in Griffith v. Butte School District — have found that school officials violated the First Amendment when they censored students’ religious speech at graduation.

Another provision in the bill would ensure that student religious groups “shall be given the same access to school facilities for assembling as is given to other noncurricular groups without discrimination” and that they can advertise or announce their meetings at school.

Still another part of the bill would allow students to engage in religious speech at varsity football games and other “nongraduation” events. This portion of the measure seems to be a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000), in which the Court struck down a Texas school district policy of allowing prayer over the loudspeaker at football games.

The bill also contains a section called “Religious Expression in Class Assignments.” Under this provision, “students shall not be punished or rewarded on account of religious content.”

The Oklahoma bill’s sponsor says he believes his measure has a good chance of passage in the legislative session that begins in February. “I have run this bill before,” Reynolds told the First Amendment Center Online.

“I believe that since Oklahoma now has a 70% Republican majority in the House, 67% Republican majority in the Senate, and most importantly a Republican governor, it will be enacted this year,” Reynolds said.

Texas adopted a similar law in June 2007. Reynolds said his bill was modeled after that law, which was written by Kelly Coghlan.

Coglan said such measures, which have also been passed in Arizona and Virginia, are necessary because “religious expression is being treated as second-class speech in many public schools.

“The First Amendment does not turn public schools into religion-free zones or teachers into prayer police,” Coghlan said. “Rather, schools are required to be neutral — treating student’s voluntary religious expression on otherwise permissible subjects the same as other expression on the same subjects. Public schools need guidance in this area.”

Religious-liberty expert Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, says the measures in Oklahoma and Texas are based in part on the 2003 U.S. Department of Education Guidelines on religious expression in public schools.

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