"School officials around the state are right to be concerned that this ill-conceived legislation could prove disruptive. It promises to foment the very religious intolerance it purports to guard against. " Read on. -Angela
Aug. 27, 2007, 8:00AM
A captive audience / Editorial HOUSTON CHRONICLE
A new Texas law that's supposed to protect students' religious freedoms likely will spark only discord.
By its nature, lawmaking is a messy business. It is impossible for every lawmaker to read or fully grasp every bill that comes up for a vote, especially in the end-of-session crush.
It's not clear why legislators voted to pass the insidiously named Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act. Passed at the close of the legislative session that ended in May, the law forbids school districts from interfering with students who wish to use school events, and their captive audience of peers, staff and community, to express their religious views.
The law, also called the Schoolchildren's Religious Liberties Act, requires districts to adopt a policy under which certain student leaders must be given opportunities to speak at all school events at which students speak publicly, including graduation, football games and morning announcements.
As long as students do not engage in "obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd or indecent speech," they will be permitted an open mic to express their religious beliefs. The law attempts to get around the constitutional prohibition against state promotion of religion by requiring schools to provide disclaimers stating that the students' speech is not school or district sponsored.
According to Houston Independent School District spokesperson Norm Uhl, HISD has yet to vote on a religious speech policy.
Proponents of the law say it protects students from discrimination for expressing religious viewpoints verbally or in their schoolwork. But to what anti-religious biases are these advocates referring?
Rather than protecting students from religious discrimination, the law's true accomplishment will be the creation of state-sanctioned forums for students who wish to pray and proselytize to captive audiences. With that comes the potential to offend everyone, including the Christian activists who championed this bill's passage.
Students could cite their religious convictions to condemn gay and lesbian students. They could promote their faith as the only true religion. They could pray for the conversion of specific students. They could even promote atheism, Satanism or paganism.
School officials around the state are right to be concerned that this ill-conceived legislation could prove disruptive. It promises to foment the very religious intolerance it purports to guard against. It would allow students to hector nonbelieving children over schools' public address systems and encourage bullying of nonconforming peers. It promises to offend many across a wide religious spectrum, including audiences at graduations, where no one should involuntarily endure proselytizing speeches during these milestone-marking occasions.
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against student-led prayer at football games in a lawsuit involving nearby Santa Fe Independent School District. Spring Branch school trustee Theresa Kosmoski worries that school districts will face expensive litigation no matter how they implement the law. "That's money that could be spent educating children."
Students already have the federally protected right to voluntary prayer and discussion of their religious convictions. The 1984 Equal Access Act allows public school students to form special-interest clubs, including faith-based clubs, and to meet on campus. Texas' Religious Viewpoints law is a pernicious endeavor to foist what were once voluntary activities on others who might not share their peers' faith.