Friday, July 27, 2007

Law on religion in school spurs fear

Law on religion in school spurs fear

Jenny Lacoste-Caputo
Express-News Staff Writer

Evangelical Christians point to 1963 as the year God
was kicked out of school. That's when the U.S. Supreme
Court upheld Madalyn Murray O'Hair's argument and
abolished the practice of students reciting prayers
and Bible passages in public schools.

Since then, there have been scores of legal battles
over when, or if, religion can coincide with the
school day.

This year, the Texas Legislature added more fuel to
the decades-old debate by passing a law that could
leave the spiritual conscience of a school up to the
captain of the football team.

Lawmakers approved that law and two others that could
ease the way for more religion in public schools. The
changes will take effect when students return to
classrooms in August.

One of the measures adds the phrase "under God" to the
Texas pledge, which schoolchildren say each day right
after the pledge to the U.S. flag. Another directs the
State Board of Education to come up with a curriculum
for elective Bible classes to ensure that such classes
across the state are being taught in uniform manner.
Neither measure sparked much controversy.

The third new law, dubbed the Religious Viewpoints
Anti-Discrimination Act, has superintendents nervous
as they figure out how to implement it in the coming

It requires public school districts to adopt policies
specifically allowing spontaneous religious expression
by students. A so-called model policy included in the
law states that upperclassmen who are student leaders
˜ such as student council officers, class officers or
the captain of the football team ˜ should be
designated as speakers.

The law does not address concerns that such a
selection process could wind up leaving out minority

"This mandate is going to create a collision of ideas
that should really take place outside of the school,"
Superintendent Richard Middleton of North East
Independent School District said. "Our lawyer fees are
going to go up because of this."

The new law creates a "limited open forum" that gives
students the opportunity to speak about religious
issues. It states that if a student speaker at a
sports event, a school assembly or a graduation
ceremony elects to express a religious viewpoint while
addressing an otherwise permissible topic, school
officials must treat the religious content the same as
they would the secular content.

Jonathan Saenz, an attorney and director of
legislative affairs for Free Market Foundation, helped
draft the bill. He said it doesn't limit districts to
the model policy.

Saenz's Plano-based group serves as the statewide
public policy council associated with Dr. James
Dobson's Focus on the Family organization.

"It is up to the discretion of the school district to
decide who those people are as long as they're using
neutral criteria," Saenz said. "The law says they can
choose those in leadership positions or other students
holding positions of honor."

But Doug Laycock, a law professor at the University of
Michigan who has represented the American Civil
Liberties Union on First Amendment issues, said the
new law attempts to "create school prayer with
plausible deniability."

"This is so irresponsible," Laycock said of the law.
"It's going to cause legal problems for districts
across the state, and they're going to be stuck with
the lawsuits."

The law also requires schools to allow religious
expression in artwork, homework or other assignments
and allow religious clubs or prayer groups to meet in
school facilities on the same basis as other student
groups ˜ something that was already taking place in
San Antonio school districts.

Brian Woods, assistant superintendent for secondary
administration at Northside ISD, said he'll have to
figure out what counts as a limited public forum. Is
it just graduation ceremonies and school assemblies,
or does it include morning announcements, usually
delivered by a student over a school's public address

In a diverse district such as Northside, where
students speak more than 30 languages, ensuring that
every view is represented and no one feels
marginalized will be a challenge, Woods said. He also
worries about the potential for conflict.

"If a kid on the football team expresses a religious
message that is not in keeping with everyone in the
room, will there be protests? That school principal
will have to deal with that," Woods said. "What if
someone wants their time to respond then and there? If
we allowed a Christian to express a religious
viewpoint, and then a Wiccan wants equal time, how
could we prevent them from doing the same?"

The bill's author, Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land,
said the new law is consistent with the Constitution
and U.S. Supreme Court rulings. He said the law does
not give students any new rights or take any away, but
makes it clear to school districts that religious
discrimination is against the law and guards students
against censorship, he said.

Prayer and religion were never taken out of public
schools, but teachers and principals have to walk a
fine line to ensure that everyone's rights are
protected. Many districts across the country ˜
including North East ISD and Austin Independent School
District ˜ offer Bible classes as electives in high
school. The classes are strictly academic and study
the Bible as literature.

Schools also must allow Bible study or prayer meetings
on their campuses on the same basis as other student
groups, and students can organize so-called "See you
at the Pole" prayer groups.

At an April news conference, Gov. Rick Perry
championed the legislation.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network,
a religious freedom group, said Texans would have been
better served if lawmakers simply required school
district personnel to be trained on students' existing

The new law will create more problems and more
lawsuits, she said.

"I don't believe it really gives students any more
rights to express their faith than they already had.
It denies input from community members and parents and
supersedes local control," Miller said. "I think
Texans should be nervous when the government tries to
tell their kids how and when to pray and what to
believe about God."

But Saenz of Free Market Foundation said the law
clarifies a student's right to religious expression in
public schools.

"The beauty of this legislation is to make it clear to
schools that they can't discriminate based on belief,"
he said.

The Texas Association of School Boards' legal
department offered guidance to school districts in a
newsletter last month. The article pointed out that
even offensive speech is protected and made it clear
that the new law means hate speech and other
discriminatory speech will now have a forum in public

Texas Freedom Network's Miller said that's a problem.

"We could hear the lawyers knocking at the schoolhouse
door when this bill passed," she said. "It plays
politics with people's faith."

New Rules From the Legislature
The Texas Legislature approved three new laws
involving religion in public schools:
Elective Courses: The State Board of Education is
given the task of adopting curriculum standards for
courses on the Bible. The standards would have to be
approved by the state attorney general to ensure
constitutionality. The classes will focus on the
history and literature of the Bible.

The Texas Pledge of Allegiance: The words 'under God'
have been added. The new pledge will be: 'Honor the
Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one
state under God, one and indivisible.'

The Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act:
Requires public school districts to adopt policies
specifically allowing spontaneous religious expression
by students. The provision would create a 'limited
open forum' ˜ an opportunity for students to speak
about religious issues on the same basis as they're
allowed to speak about other topics.

No comments:

Post a Comment