February 06, 2014

GLSEN Asks Virginians To Help Stop Misleading Religious Freedom in Schools Bill

A bill to allow more religious expression by students in Virginia public schools is scheduled to go before a house subcommittee today. A similar version of this bill passed the senate earlier this year, but advocates are still calling for action.

The Richmond area chapter of GLSEN sent out an alert this morning asking for people to “support the right of students to engage in free speech activities,” but realize “this legislation will result in school sanctioned religious speech that is both inappropriate and dangerously unconstitutional.”

The language of the bill, HB 493, details how public schools could, if passed, create policies to allow students to express religious beliefs.

“The policy shall declare each such school event to be a limited public forum, provide a neutral method for the selection of student speakers, and require each school principal to provide a disclaimer in advance of each such school event that the school division does not endorse any religious viewpoint that may be expressed by student speakers.”

Don’t let the innocuous language of the bill fool you, however, according to GLSEN, the bill’s goal of religious freedom hides a more sinister mission.

“The bill would… disrupt campaigns, activities, and programs such as the Annual Day of Silence. The public school system should not be in the business of promoting speech that violates the First Amendment, nor should they seek policies that would coerce students to participate in particular beliefs. ” said Richmond GLSEN in the alert.

Senator Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) released a statement condemning this kind of legislation last month when a similar bill, SB236, passed the Senate floor.

“This bill purports to promote religious freedom for all, but rather would give the religious majority the opportunity to promote its own sectarian religious beliefs to the exclusion of others – intended or not,” said Senator Ebbin . “Prayers are unlikely to be from anything but the majority religion. It’s about who is called on to speak, who is not called on to speak … and who is forced to listen.”

The ACLU of Virginia echoed Ebbin’s concerns saying the bill was unnecessary and would tread in unconstitutional territory.

“It would subject students to religious coercion in a limitless range of settings, including those which the Constitution already prohibits, e.g., prayers over the loudspeaker at football games and reciting Bible verses during morning announcements,” said the ACLU in a release about the bill.

The Senate version passed by a 20-18 vote across party lines, but before Lt. Gov Northam and AG Herring’s Senate seats were filled. The Senate bill is expected to pass the conservative House, but its final fate will be determined by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The Governor could veto the bill, and with the now-full senate stacked 10-10 even on party lines and Democrat LT. Gov. Northam, an override of the Veto could fail.

Today’s house committee vote would put HB 493 before the House which it will surely pass, but the bill is expected to fail the now even Senate with Northam casting the tie breaking vote.

Article by Brad Kutner

Editor in Chief at GayRVA.com based in Richmond, VA.
Original text can be found here

Sarah Munshi

About Sarah Munshi

Sarah is GLSEN's Public Policy Associate based in Washington, D.C.

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