“Misleading” Student Religious Freedoms Bill Heads to Gov. McAuliffe’s Desk
RICHMOND – The General Assembly passed legislation to protect a range of religious expressions and practices by students in Virginia public schools.
LGBTQ youth advocates had called the bill misleading in its mission, and said its end result could endanger sexual minority youth activities in schools.
“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 an alert sent out earlier this month.
James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, echoed these concerns saying his organization was disappointed in the bill’s passage. “This bill could have the consequence of allowing students to discriminate against their lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender peers under the guise of religious freedom.”
Senate Bill 236 codifies the rights of students to organize and engage in any religious activity to the same extent students also may engage in nonreligious expression or activities.
The bill covers students’ rights to organize prayer groups and religious clubs. It also provides students the right to wear clothing and accessories with religious messages or symbols in school, and to express religious viewpoints at any school event where students are allowed to speak publicly.
The House voted 64-34 this past week in favor of the bill, which was authored by Sen. Charles Carrico Sr., R–Galax. The House vote followed a much tighter Senate vote in January, when the bill passed 20-18.
Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, R–Woodbridge, was among the near two-thirds majority in favor of SB236, citing the importance of “The wisdom of free expression.”
“This is in many ways a foundational piece of legislation,” Lingamfelter said. “(The bill) stands completely in unity with our founding vision.
Delegate Joseph Morrissey, D–Richmond, spoke against SB236, stating that there already is legal precedence protecting everything that is included in the bill.
“There is a misconception that federal and state law doesn’t protect free speech right now,” Morrissey said.
Morrissey cited the Federal Equal Access Act, which he said requires schools to allow students to express their religious freedom and their religious ideas in clubs and in speeches. He also referenced the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court case Good News Club v. Milford Central School, which upheld the concept that religious organizations have the First Amendment right to use school facilities to the same extent as non-religious organizations.
“Why do we need this legislation with that case precedent?” Morrissey asked.
Delegate Terry Kilgore, R–Gate City, said the purpose of the bill is to stop school administrators from unconstitutionally implementing censorship of religious speech. He also said the bill will help prevent unnecessary lawsuits by requiring principals to provide written disclaimers stating that their school division does not endorse any religious viewpoints expressed by students.
According to a Feb. 25 report by the Roanoke Times, Democrat Gov. Terry McAuliffe is expected to veto SB236 based on questions about the constitutionality of the bill.
Parrish said he had also heard of Gov. McAuliffe’s intention to veto the bill. “As Virginia moves toward becoming a more inclusive and welcoming state for all individuals and families regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, this legislation stands out as a step in the wrong direction.”
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