News Articles and Editorials about HB 3678,
the Texas Religious Expression Protection Law
Perry backs 'religious expression' legislation
By CLAY ROBISON
Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
April 11, 2007
AUSTIN — Surrounded by several parents and children, Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday endorsed legislation that, he said, would guarantee youngsters the freedom to express their religious beliefs at school.
"We don't need to shield our children from religious expression and allow them to only be exposed to the religion of secularism in our schools," he said.
"Discussion does not lead to indoctrination. Rather, it leads to open-mindedness and personal and educational betterment."
House Bill 3678, expected to be considered by the House State Affairs Committee on Thursday, wouldn't lead to organized school prayer or otherwise expand the influence of religion in the public schools, supporters said.
Rather, they said, it would codify freedoms that the courts already allow under the Constitution and existing law but that some school districts have refused to honor.
"This is codifying the legal battles that have already occurred," said Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, the bill's sponsor.
Kelly Shackelford, attorney for the Liberty Legal Institute of Plano, which represents students and parents in religious freedom cases, said the bill would require school districts to allow students to express their religious beliefs as they do secular opinions.
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which monitors the political activities of religious and social conservatives, said students' religious expression already is protected by the First Amendment.
"This bill wouldn't relieve school districts from their responsibility to protect the religious freedom of all students, regardless of their faith," Miller said. "What this bill mostly does is give politicians something easy to pass to keep their (conservative) base happy."
Perry said the bill was prompted by several incidents, including a case in which one school prohibited students from wishing troops serving overseas a "Merry Christmas" in letters mailed to them.
Another school, he said, reprimanded a first-grader for invoking Jesus when she was asked what she thinks of when she thinks of Easter.
Cynthia Gualy, the mother of four children in the Katy Independent School District, said students are prohibited from passing out tracts with the Ten Commandants but are allowed to exchange Pokemon cards.
Gualy is among a group of parents, represented by the Liberty Legal Institute, who sued Katy ISD, alleging that teachers and administrators at one school censored children and discriminated against them for expressing Christian viewpoints.
The district has denied suppressing freedom of speech or religious expression.
The suit is pending in federal district court in Houston, Shackelford said.
Needless ‘Religious Expression' Bill Throws House Into Chaos
by Vince Leibowitz
April 26, 2007
One would think, if the House were to descend into utter chaos and border on total revolt, it would be over something important, like children's health insurance, appropriations, or abortion.
Oh, but no. Texas House Republicans, who, through their zeal to legislate religion and morality over the last three sessions have nearly surpassed the Moral Majority in the piety department, managed to send the house into disarray (General Dissarray, if you will…) over a bill that would turn Texas public schools into chambers of proselytizing, temples of excessive evangelism, and even boxing rings for fights over religion.
The bill in question was on the Committee Substitute to House Bill 3678, the so-called "Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act" or the "Schoolchildren's Religious Liberties Act." http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/tlodocs/80R/billtext/html/HB03678H.htm
Don't let the name fool you, though. It's nothing about ending discrimination or "religious liberties."
The bill would, in fact, require school districts to treat a student's expression of a religious viewpoint the same as a secular viewpoint.
In addition, ISDs would be forced to create a forum for students to express their religious viewpoints at any school sponsored event where a student is expected to speak. In other words, pep rallies would become Baptist Camp Meetings and graduations would become opportunities for lengthy sermons.
And that's not the worst of it! HB 3678 would also allow students to express religious viewpoints in class assignments. While students can already do that to a great extent in pieces that allow for student opinion (essays, etc.), HB 3687 would essentially allow a biology student to write an essay quoting the creation story of Genesis in response to an assignment on evolution and be placed on the same footing as someone who analyzed Charles Darwin's theories. It's bunk with a capitol ‘B.'
And, the math club and chess club (and, perhaps, the football team if it is considered "non-curricular") might as well move over because they could be forced to cede their space to the Baptist Student's Club, the Catholic Club, the Muslim Student Association, and the Jewish Student's Association and whatever other religious clubs happen to crop up for the various and sundry protestant-Christian, Judeo-Christian, and Eastern religions that desire space.
While the legislation provides that there can be no discrimination based on the religious content of the students' expression, you can bet that anything that's not Christian will be discriminated against (after all, we are in Texas). This, of course, will result in dozens of school districts being forced into costly litigation.
Back to the topic at hand, though, this bill is the bill that sent the House into chaos yesterday. This bill—this piece of total and utter nonsense. From QR:
"Much of the debate centered on rights of minorities to freedom of expression. So, it seems only appropriate that 25 House members would sign on to a resolution restricting the free speech rights of their colleagues by shutting down the amendment process to on this controversial bill. The Calendars Committee scheduled it for floor debate, so what is the problem with a debate?
Putting the merits of the bill and the amendments aside, the procedure of shutting down the amendment process in an otherwise free wheeling House is exceedingly rare and revealed the gaping wounds that still haunt the institution.
The irony is palpable."
Indeed it is. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) moved to have the names read, a motion which was initially ignored and Rep. Will Harnett (R-Dallas) said the reading of the names wouldn't be productive.
But, Thompson wasn't to be deterred.
The list was ultimately read and was (and this includes the missing names from QR's list): Aycock, Callegari, Chisum, Darby, Flynn, Hughes, Hopson (a Democrat!), Hill, Harless, King, P., Morrison, Macias, Miller, Murphy, O'Day, Orr, Otto, Patrick, Pickett, Pitts, Smith, Taylor, West, Zedler and Zerwas.
A formal motion to limit amendments failed (vote not yet online).
After all this uproar, the bill was pulled until Monday morning.
House Tries to Limit Debate on Free Speech Bill
by: Burnt Orange Report
Thu Apr 26, 2007
Ed. note: This is a lengthy post, we know, but worth the extended read.
For those that like parliamentary theater, last night's House debate was one of a kind -- and one where the House Democrats, led by the ever relentless and powerful Rep. Senfronia Thompson, came close to defeating one of the worst bills of the session.
Yesterday, the Texas House was scheduled to take up HB 3678 by Rep. Charlie Howard (R-Sugar Land). The bill is supposed to ensure that school districts cannot infringe on a student's religious freedom of expression. From the bill analysis:
C.S.H.B. 3678 codifies these court decisions and the constitutional ways a student, or groups of students, may express their faith at school and at school sponsored events.
Proponents of the bill argue that too often a student's right to free speech -- namely, religious expression during class time or at school sponsored events -- are limited by the school district. In reality, this bill is a result of the Bill O'Reilly "War on Christmas" fight (Source), which makes mountains out of molehills. Rep. Howard and others stated on the House floor that students are being told they can't say "Christmas" in school, and the state should step in and clarify for school districts exactly what is allowed and not allowed in schools.
[Interesting side note: The landmark 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' student free-speech case is scheduled to be heard before the Supreme Court. Source.]
After no more than a couple hours of debate, Rep. Warren Chisum decided that, after a couple amendments, he'd heard enough from House Democrats protesting the bill and moved to limit debate on all House amendments. That's right, Rep. Warren Chisum and 25 of his House colleagues decided it was best to limit the debate on a free speech bill.
Ultimately, the motion to limit amendments failed. Rep. Thompson demanded, and successfully won the right, to have the names read from the front mike, and the bill was "courteously" postponed until Monday. But not until Rep. Thompson had a showdown with Speaker Craddick though -- and won.
The larger question, though, is why try to limit the debate on free speech in the first place? Was it because Rep. Chisum believed everyone had made up their mind and the House was wasting time on a bill everyone already knew how they would vote on (as he stated on the House floor)? Or was it because he was scared the bill would be defeated?
We believe the latter. Here's our evidence:
Burnt Orange Report :: House Tries to Limit Debate on Free Speech Bill
Why did Rep. Warren Chisum make the motion to limit the amendments to those already on the table -- and, by default, limit the debate on free speech? We argue that Rep. Chisum is upset so many of his bills are being defeated, gutted, and otherwise dismissed -- despite his supposedly powerful post as Chairman of Appropriations. Just look at some of the bills he's lost control of this session:
* HB 2685, the "Marriage tax bill." The bill would have increased the marriage license fee from $30 to $100 unless a couple took premarital counseling, in which case the $100-fee would be waived. Rep. Thompson successfully amended Rep. Chisum's bill to keep the fee at $30, gutting the intent of the bill. (Source).
* HB 1287, the "Bible bill." Rep. Chisum offered a bill making it mandatory for schools to offer electives that taught the Bible. The bill has been amended to make the course optional for school districts -- again, effectively gutting the bill. (Source).
* HB 175, "Abortion Trigger Law." Sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Dan Patrick, this is the bill that would make abortions automatically illegal as soon as the Supreme Court overturns Roe. v. Wade.. The bill is not coming out of either committee, meaning it is dead. (Source).
* HB 1439. As Paul Burka wrote on Burka Blog:
He had a bill today to establish a pilot program to allow data-gathering companies access to DPS driving records, which they would later sell to employers, who could use the data to ague for a reduction of their insurance premiums by showing that their professional drivers had good safety records. The bill failed yesterday but was resuscitated with a motion to reconsider the vote. The House debated it, amended it, and killed it again.
That's right -- Rep. Chisum forced members to re-debate a bill at the start of the day for several hours that had already failed, only to have it fail again, then complain at the end of the day that the House was debating too long. (Source).
Rep. Chisum should never have made a motion to limit amendments. However, maybe he and other conservative Republicans truly believed the bill would die on the House floor unless they stopped it somehow. Rep. Thompson has shown before (as cited above) that she can lead the charge to defeat bad legislation, and it is entirely conceivable that, had Rep. Charlie Howard not postponed the bill until Monday, his religious freedom of expression bill would have been defeated last night.
Rep. Howard's bill comes back to the floor on Monday. What will happen? Tune in to watch.
School prayer gets a boost
House approves bill that would let students express faith on campus
By GARY SCHARRER
Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
May 1, 2007
AUSTIN — Legislation designed to give public school students opportunities to express religious viewpoints tentatively cleared the House on Monday despite warnings that it will have unintended consequences.
The bill would require school districts to adopt a policy allowing student speakers to express a religious perspective during limited public forums, such as football games, graduation ceremonies and school assemblies.
"This bill provides protection for students and school officials. Right now we have confusion in the schools about religious expression, and students are being discriminated against," said Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, author of House Bill 3678.
Current law allows students to organize prayer groups, religious clubs and similar gatherings during the school day, and they must be given the same access to school facilities as other noncurricular groups.
Howard said his bill does not give students any new rights or take any away. But critics contend the expansion of student prayer at football games and other school-related activities would raise constitutional questions.
A separate bill that would make it easier for school districts to offer courses in the Bible is expected to reach the House floor soon.
The House voted 110-33 for the "Schoolchildren's Religious Liberties Act." The legislation will head to the Senate for consideration after a final House vote today.
If the Senate approves it, student leaders will be allowed to summon Jesus Christ in prayer to help calm student nerves before a TAKS test, Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said of the hypothetical situation before voting against the measure.
Or, a student leader can call on Allah if he or she is a Muslim. Or, a student leader can tell other students that it's sacrilegious to pray to Jesus for comfort because "Jesus was not the son of God, Jesus was not the messiah," Hochberg told his colleagues, noting some discomfort in their facial reactions.
"And yet this is the serious religious viewpoint of a lot of people in this state, a lot of students in this state," said Hochberg, who is Jewish.
The legislation would require school districts to develop a neutral method for selecting students to speak at school events, and the policy could not discriminate against a student's religious expression.
A student who invokes Allah or who expresses a religious belief that disavows the mainstream Christian perspective "will throw communities into turmoil," Hochberg said.
Howard said legislation is needed to protect school districts from lawsuits costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend against allegations that schools violate a student's freedom of expression.
The legislation also would allow students to express religious beliefs in their homework, artwork or other assignments.
The leader of Texas Freedom Network contends the bill actually threatens the religious freedom of students.
"Under this legislation, students will be held captive to the expression of religious beliefs that they and their families may not share. Students will be able to promote their own religious views over everybody else's, placing schools in serious legal jeopardy," said Kathy Miller, president of the organization, which supports an agenda of religious freedom.
Houston school officials said they are reviewing the legislation to see if it could impact any of the current policies in the state's largest school system.
HISD follows federal laws on the subject, which say students don't shed their right to free speech while they're at school.
Chronicle reporter Jennifer Radcliffe contributed to this article from Houston
Kids' religious expression rights expanded by bill
Governor praises legislation allowing expression of views in speech, schoolwork.
By April Castro
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
Schools would be encouraged to treat students' religious viewpoints in class assignments the same as those of secular expression under legislation tentatively approved Monday by the Texas House.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, would encourage schools to adopt the recommended policy "so school districts know what the students can say and do and what the school teachers and administration can say and do."
Under the legislation, religious beliefs expressed in homework, artwork and other assignments would be judged by traditional academic standards. Students couldn't be penalized or rewarded because of religious content.
The House voted 110-33 in favor of House Bill 3678. The chamber is expected to give final approval today.
"Freedom of religion should not be mistaken for freedom from religion," Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement. "This bill simply clarifies U.S. Supreme Court decisions, protecting schools from needless lawsuits and ensuring students can express their religious views without fear of intimidation."
The measure also requires schools to establish a "limited public forum" at all school events at which students speak.
Schools would have to develop a neutral method for selecting students to speak at school events and graduation ceremonies and provide a disclaimer, in writing or orally, that the school district did not endorse the student's speech.
Critics said the measure is an unconstitutional effort to encourage religion over nonreligion in the state's public schools.
"This bill threatens the religious freedom of students," said Kathy Miller, president of the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network.
"Under this legislation, students will be held captive to the expression of religious beliefs that they and their families may not share. Students will be able to promote their own religious views over everybody else's, placing schools in serious legal jeopardy."
The measure would next go to the Senate for consideration.
Student religious expression gets backing in the House
By R.A. DYER
Star-Telegram staff writer
AUSTIN -- Texas school districts would have to develop guidelines for student expressions of religion under a hotly debated bill that won preliminary House approval Monday.
The measure, House Bill 3678 by Sugar Land Republican Charlie Howard, faces a final vote before being sent to the Senate for consideration. It calls for school districts to establish guidelines allowing students to voluntarily express religious views in "limited public forums."
"Currently, students' voluntary religious expression is being treated as second-class speech, and sometimes worse, in public schools," Howard said during an earlier debate on the issue. "Schoolchildren are being censored and reprimanded at school, leaving them in fear of punishment for their religious beliefs."
Opponents say that the bill further erodes the separation of church and state. They note that as an unintended consequence, school districts could find themselves obligated to give Wiccans or those with anti-Christian views a chance to lead prayers before football games.
"What are you going to do the first year that a Wiccan calls upon the great mother goddess to watch over the students that day?" said Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth. "You are not prepared to have schools inclusive enough to meet the law."
The president of the Texas Freedom Network, which opposes the influence of religious conservatives in government, said the bill threatens student freedom. "Students will be able to promote their own religious views over everybody else's, placing schools in serious legal jeopardy, [and] the House failed to approve amendments that would fix these flaws," Kathy Miller said.
The legislation provides guidelines that districts can choose to adopt:
Students may express their religious beliefs in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination, according to a House analysis of the bill.
Students may organize prayer groups, religious clubs or other religious gatherings before, during and after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other extracurricular activities and groups, according to the analysis.
In 2005 Howard led an unsuccessful effort to get biblical creationism taught alongside evolution in science textbooks.
He told the Star-Telegram then that he did not believe in evolution and questioned why it was being taught in public schools "when we have [another] position -- creation -- that the majority of the people in this country believe."
Howard, one of the most outspoken religious conservatives in the House, fought off various amendments Monday that he said would dilute the bill's intent.
House members overwhelming sided with him, approving the bill 110-33.
Tarrant County members voted along party lines, with Republicans voting for the bill and Democrats opposing it.
R.A. Dyer works at the Star-Telegram 's Austin bureau. 512-476-4294
Religious expression in public schools
J. Michael Parker
Express-News Religion Writer
Web Posted: 05/14/2007
Zach Van Veldhuizen believes Jesus should be honored in public schools. The MacArthur High School senior doesn't understand why prayers or other religious expressions at school-sponsored events would be a problem.
But Katina Rajunov, a Clark High School senior, believes that religious messages given at school-sponsored events might make students of differing faiths feel excluded.
Enter the Texas Legislature, which has joined the fray most commonly the province of school district officials, who often face a conundrum in the religious freedoms of students.
The Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, passed May 1 by the Texas House and expected to pass the Senate possibly this week before being signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry, would require Texas 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.
It states that if a student speaker at a sports event, a school assembly or a graduation ceremony elects to spontaneously express a religious viewpoint while speaking on an otherwise permissible topic, school officials must treat the religious content the same as it would secular content.
It also would require policies that 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 students groups use them.
Van Veldhuizen, a Fellowship of Christian Athletes leader at his school, said he believes prayer has been largely pushed out of public schools, so those who want to pray openly need legal protection.
"If I screamed out my belief, that would be wrong," he said, "but if I do it in a polite, gentle way and say how God has changed my life, I don't see why anybody would find that offensive."
But Rajunov, who is Jewish, does.
She has no objection to allowing religious groups to use school facilities the same way nonreligious groups do, but she doesn't like the idea of anyone at an official school event having to listen to prayers and beliefs of any one particular religious tradition.
"If it represents one religion, it excludes all the others, even if the school or the district isn't actively endorsing it," she said.
Raj Singh, a senior at O'Connor High School who is a Sikh, said he doesn't believe speakers at large school-sponsored events should use such occasions for religious purposes.
"I don't mind people expressing their beliefs — but they shouldn't do it as public speakers. It's not fair to others."
Hunter Ellis, a Clark High School senior who belongs to a student Bible study group, said he doesn't see any problem with the bill.
"Students should be allowed to give their religious viewpoints or maybe read a few Bible verses — in a toned-down way, not to try to convert others," he said.
Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, who introduced the bill in the House, said students who have strong religious faith have the right to express it.
"It would confer no new rights and would remove no existing rights," Howard said of the bill.
But two specialists in First Amendment law disagreed over the public-speaking provision.
University of Michigan law Professor Doug Laycock, who has represented the American Civil Liberties Union in litigation on First Amendment issues, said the bill's language reflects existing law.
For example, students already can conduct so-called "See You at the Pole" events to pray before or after school or have Bible study or prayer meetings in school facilities on the same basis as other groups. But he said creating a "limited public forum" at mass school events and letting randomly selected student leaders give religious messages breaks new ground that the Supreme Court hasn't decided.
Current law requires official school events to be secular because the school controls the program. Students attending are a "captive audience," and a student's speech to a mass audience isn't private, he said.
"In any district where most student speakers would open events with prayer, the bill essentially forces students of other faiths and of no faith to participate in evangelical prayer services," Laycock said.
Frank Manion, a lawyer for the American Center for Law and Justice, which defends Christians' religious and civil liberties, said that while the policy could be abused, that doesn't mean it will be.
"If you had a Christian prayer every time a school had an event, you'd wonder if this wasn't really just a sham," Manion said. "But we don't outlaw freedom of speech just because some people abuse it."
Van Alstyne Independent School District Superintendent Alan Seay, who attended the recent House debate, said he wants the assurance that his district complies with Supreme Court mandates.
"If a Muslim student speaker wanted to say a prayer to Allah or speak about how Allah has influenced his life, Christian parents might object and sue the district," he said. "This bill would free districts from having to be word police and to censor everything a kid said."
But Brian Woods, assistant superintendent for secondary education at Northside Independent School District, said balancing competing rights of student speakers and student audiences is "very much a no-win situation" for districts.
"Limited open forums," he said, usually are student-led groups meeting in school facilities, not mass events.
"For large gatherings, we like to review what a student speaker is going to say before he says it. That's appropriate whatever the message, not because it might be religious.
"If a student chose to convey a message and we couldn't prohibit it, that would take away a lot of control," Woods said.
Round Rock, McNeil, Stony Point high schools approve graduation prayer
Invocations would be nonsectarian.
By Bob Banta
Monday, May 21, 2007
ROUND ROCK — Seniors at three of the Round Rock school district's four high schools voted to have an invocation at their graduation programs this month, ending a week of discussion over how to approach the subject of prayer at graduation.
Senior class leaders will meet with principals this week to decide how the invocations will be delivered at ceremonies for Round Rock, McNeil and Stony Point high schools. Seniors at each school will select a representative of their class to present the invocation.
The district follows a statewide policy suggested by the Texas Association of School Boards that prohibits public school administrators from ordering an invocation at graduation. The policy, based on the group's legal research aimed at avoiding conflicts over separation of church and state, allows students to request an invocation if they want one.
Officials of several districts in Central Texas say they do not have any form of prayer at their graduations. The Leander and Hays consolidated districts are among districts that do.
Nearly 80 percent of the seniors who voted at Round Rock High approved an invocation. Slightly more than 50 percent of the seniors who cast ballots approved an invocation for Stony Point and McNeil high schools.
Westwood High School will not have an invocation because nearly two-thirds of voting seniors were against it.
Seniors were also allowed to cast neutral votes indicating that they were neither for an invocation nor against it.
The issue arose several weeks ago when administrators published a format for the schools' graduation programs that omitted the option of an invocation.
School board member Vivian Sullivan reacted by urging the school board to give seniors a chance to request a nonsectarian prayer at their diploma ceremonies.
"We need a generic invocation asking God for guidance," Sullivan said. "If you're an atheist, then just humor us."
District policy says the invocation must be "nonsectarian" and "nonproselytizing."
District spokeswoman JoyLynn Occhiuzzi said Westwood has never had an invocation at its graduation. Invocations at McNeil and Stony Point high schools appear to have been rare in the past, she said.
Invocations at Round Rock High are a tradition that dates at least to the late 1960s, said Marcia Hilsabeck, who has taught English at the school for 40 years. She thinks the current policy of allowing seniors to vote on having a prayer began in the late 1980s.
"We've had one at Round Rock High since then," she said.
Seven students from Round Rock High spoke in favor of a prayer at Thursday's school board meeting.
"After Virginia Tech and Columbine, we don't have to wait for another tragedy to invoke the name of God," senior Robert Prybyla said.
Invocations are not part of graduation in the Pflugerville, Eanes or Austin school districts.
"We are a diverse community, and not having an invocation acknowledges that diversity," Austin school spokeswoman Kathy Anthony said.
Hays Consolidated ceremonies have an "opening remark by a student who mentions the 'seen' and the 'unseen,' " district spokeswoman Julie Jerome said.
Leander spokesman Bill Britcher said invocations in his district are delivered by a variety of clergy.
"We've had them them since before I got here 15 years ago," he said.
Sullivan said she would also like to have an invocation before each school board meeting. The suggestion will be referred to the board's policy committee.
Senate approves religious expression measure
By JIM VERTUNO
May 24, 2007
AUSTIN — Texas students' religious viewpoints in class assignments would be treated the same as secular expression under legislation approved by the Senate and sent to the House.
Under the legislation, religious beliefs expressed in homework, artwork and other assignments would be judged by traditional academic standards. Students couldn't be penalized or rewarded because of the religious content of their work.
The measure had sparked vigorous debate in the House, where the bill was amended to say that the religious expression could not discriminate against someone else's race, age, sexual preference or religious belief.
Opponents of the amendment argued it would open school districts to wide interpretation of discrimination and would gut the bill.
Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said the state attorney general's office warned it would subject school districts to lawsuits and the Senate stripped out the nondiscrimination amendment before approving the bill 28-2 Wednesday night.
The bill now goes back to the House for final approval before it goes to Gov. Rick Perry, who has publicly supported it.
Supporters say the bill is needed to protect schools from lawsuits and ensure students can express their religious beliefs. Williams said the bill writes into law protections already provided by U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
"The overwhelming vote speaks loudly for what Texans believe: Religious freedom is a treasure and our children should be protected from discrimination." said Kelly Shackelford of the Liberty Legal Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on religious issues and First Amendment rights.
Critics, however, say it is an unconstitutional effort to encourage religion over non-religion in the state's public schools.
"Why am I not surprised that the people who would impose their religion on others don't have a problem with discrimination?" said Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat who opposes the bill.
The bill also requires schools to establish a "limited public forum" at all school events during which students speak. Schools would have to develop a neutral method for selecting students to speak at school events and graduation ceremonies and provide a disclaimer, in writing or orally, that the student's speech was not endorsed by the school district.
The religious expression bills is HB3678.
House OKs religion in school
Bill moves to Perry's desk
Monday, May 28, 2007
AUSTIN – Texas students would have greater freedom to express their religious views on school campuses under a bill passed Saturday by the House and sent to Gov. Rick Perry, who has publicly supported the measure.
Under the legislation, religious beliefs expressed in homework, artwork and other assignments would be judged by traditional academic standards. Students couldn't be penalized or rewarded because of the religious content of their work.
Supporters say the bill is needed to protect students from censorship and school districts from lawsuits. But opponents argue it will lead to religious discrimination among students.
"We are allowing our young people to express their faith, whatever that faith is," said Rep. Larry Phillips, a Sherman Republican.
At an April news conference, Perry was surrounded by children and parents who said their religious speech was quashed at public school. Supporters of the bill have cited examples of students being prohibited from wishing troops overseas a "Merry Christmas" or told they couldn't distribute religious bracelets at recess.
The House had previously amended the bill to say the religious expression or speech could not discriminate against someone else's race, age, sexual preference or religious belief.
The Senate took that amendment out and the House voted to approve the Senate version of the bill 108-28. Several supporters argued that students should be allowed to express religious beliefs regarding sexual preference or whether their religion is superior to others.
Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Houston Democrat, argued against the bill, warning it would open up campuses to hate speech.
Supporters say the bill, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, writes into law protections already provided by U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
Critics, however, say it is an unconstitutional effort to encourage religion over non-religion in the state's public schools.
"The only good thing about this bill was the nondiscrimination clause," said Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat who predicted it would prompt lawsuits against schools.
The bill also requires schools to establish a "limited public forum" at all school events in which students speak. Schools would have to develop a neutral method for selecting students to speak at school events and graduation ceremonies, and provide a written or oral disclaimer that the student's speech was not endorsed by the school district.
Bill seeks to define boundaries for religion in schools
Schools undecided on how to regulate rights students always had
By JEFFREY WEISS / The Dallas Morning News
Saturday, June 2, 2007
Will morning announcements over the loudspeakers at Texas public schools include a student's prayer next school year? Will some deity be invoked by a student at the start of every football game? Or during a student's speech at graduation?
A bill passed last week by the Texas Legislature and now on Gov. Rick Perry's desk would define all of those events – and other public-school assemblies at which a student speaks – as venues explicitly open to the expression of a student's religious viewpoints.
Supporters say the bill protects the rights of all students who choose to talk about their faith. Opponents say it may unfairly privilege the religion held by the majority of students or permit hate speech in the name of religion.
Supporters and opponents of the bill assume that Mr. Perry will sign it into law. Representatives for several North Texas school districts said that this would be one of many new laws that apply to public schools and that they haven't figured out how to implement it.
If the bill becomes law, local school districts would have until Sept. 1 to approve a policy that meets the guidelines.
Supporters say the bill merely codifies case law from several Supreme Court rulings.
"This bill protects every religious viewpoint," said Kelly Coghlan, a Houston lawyer who crafted the bill and whose professional Web site is http://www.christianattorney.com. "I was just trying to take my cues from the Supreme Court justices."
School districts have the option of eliminating the possibility of religious content by not allowing students to speak at an event, he said. And the bill says that whatever students say must be on an "otherwise permissible subject."
School districts would be required to provide a disclaimer, orally or in writing, stating that the district does not endorse what the student says.
Opponents say the bill is an attempt to push religion into areas of public schools where it does not belong – while not specifying that students are also entitled to express themselves politically or artistically at the same venues.
Students may be forced to participate in religious activities that they do not agree with – a mandate not placed on the legislators who passed the bill, said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network.
Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican, "walked out on a Muslim prayer because he didn't want to be seen as endorsing that faith," Ms. Miller said. "A student listening to morning announcements in class or attending a assembly does not have that right. They face compulsory attendance in the face of deeply personal religious expression that may make them uncomfortable."
In addition to provisions covering speeches, the bill specifies that school assignments cannot discriminate against religious content, providing it meets other standards set for the work.
Some legal scholars not embroiled in the legislative battle give the bill mixed reviews.
"This law is not so terribly different from what the background constitutional law already is," said Ira C. Lupu, a law professor at George Washington University. "It mandates what is permissible."
Frank Kemerer, a professor of education law at the University of North Texas, figures that some of the bill can be clarified only through litigation.
"In short, it looks like a fertile field for the legal community and many headaches for school officials," he said.
The bill includes a model policy that school districts are not required to adopt. But it's the only policy that guarantees districts won't run afoul of the law. Mr. Coghlan said the model policy has been in use for several years without complaints at a school district in Illinois.
The policy specifies the kinds of events that will be considered "limited public forums" for student speakers. They include the school day's opening announcements and football games. No other sport is specified, but the policy says it would also apply to any other athletic events that the school district chooses.
The policy also identifies the kinds of students eligible to speak at these events: elected student officers, the captain of the football team (but not necessarily the captain of, say, the girls volleyball squad) – and any other students holding "positions of honor" that the district chooses.
Critics of the bill say the kinds of students specified in the policy are not chosen neutrally.
"There is built into the policy the likelihood of a majoritarian favoritism," Mr. Lupu said.
But the selection process is neutral regarding religion, and that's what the law requires, Mr. Coghlan said.
Supports say the bill simplifies what has been a messy legal situation. A few Texas schools have mandated school-sanctioned prayers at events in the past – a policy struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 in a case involving the Santa Fe, Texas, school district. Other schools have banned some student religious expressions.
This bill takes the case law and puts it all in one place, said Kelly Shackelford, president of the Texas-based Free Market Foundation and chief counsel at Liberty Legal Institute.
"To me, the principle is a very simple one: It's a nondiscrimination principle," he said.
The bill did not specify political or artistic expression – also protected in a "limited public forum" – because those forms of expression are not being repressed, he said. "We don't need it."
Opponents say the bill actually muddies the legal waters.
"It runs the risk of pushing schools in a direction that may be unconstitutional," said Charles Haynes, senior scholar with the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. "School officials are going to have a hard time knowing how to implement this."
Religious students' rights clarified in bill
Controversial legislation addresses will cause more or fewer lawsuits, depending on whom you ask.
By Eileen E. Flynn
Monday, June 04, 2007
God and Jesus have bedeviled public school districts over the years.
Should the valedictorian be able to praise the Lord at graduation? Can students quote the Bible in a history paper? Is prayer ever acceptable in the classroom?
Rep. Charlie Howard, left, with Rep. Wayne Christian, sponsored the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, which provides guidelines for students to express religious views in public schools.
The confusion has led to lawsuits and complaints — and to a bill passed by lawmakers last week that some promise will clarify religion's place in public schools and that others worry will only muddy the waters more.
The Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, lays out students' rights to express their faith and offers a model for schools to create "limited public forums" at events such as graduations in which students may invoke religion.
The Legislature sent the bill to Gov. Rick Perry, who has publicly supported it, before the legislative session's close last week.
Kelly Coghlan, a Houston lawyer who spent years researching the issue and who helped draft the bill's language, said the measure will prevent discrimination and lawsuits.
"School districts want to do the right thing," he said. "They just want to know what it is."
The need for the legislation was hotly debated over the past few weeks. Federal education guidelines already allow student-initiated prayer and let students express religious viewpoints in homework and classroom discussions as long as the idea relates to the topic.
If Perry signs the bill into law, schools must determine a method to allow a variety of students to speak — and share their faith if they choose to — if any students address their peers at such school events as graduations and assemblies.
Two Texas lawyers promoting the bill say schools that follow the new model would not be subject to lawsuits if a student speaker talks about religion because schools would choose speakers based on nonreligious criteria and would issue a disclaimer that the students' views do not represent the school district's.
Jackie Lain, a government relations official with the Texas Association of School Boards, said several local school boards supported the bill. But she added that most worry that the bill will lead to more litigation because religious speech at events may offend students or parents.
Some school district officials, Lain said, are considering dropping student speakers from all school events just to avoid the risk of a lawsuit.
Her association plans to train school boards and school district personnel on how to follow the new rules in the coming months.
Other opponents say that the limited public forums will create audiences of students who will be forced to listen to their peers proselytize at commencement ceremonies or morning announcements.
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group that says it monitors the "religious right," accused the lawyers who helped write the bill of trying to lay the foundation for more religious discrimination suits.
Kelly Shackelford of the Plano-based Liberty Legal Institute, a group that represents people in religious discrimination cases, dismissed that idea, saying he has plenty of work and doesn't need Howard's bill to sue school districts.
"If they discriminate against a kid because of their faith, I can nail them under federal law," he said.
The point of the legislation, Shackelford said, is to pull together Supreme Court rulings and federal guidelines into one law, making it easier for schools to understand.
He and Coghlan cited cases in which Texas students were not allowed to write "Merry Christmas" in letters to soldiers or were told they would be disciplined for praying.
"What (the bill) does is make our public schools more friendly to expression that should never have been discriminated against in the first place," Coghlan said.
RELIGION IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Clubs and other activities
Religious activities would be allowed in schools to the same extent that other noncurricular student activities are allowed. If the chess club can meet in a schoolroom during or after school, so can a Bible club.
An art teacher who tells students to paint their "favorite person" would not be allowed to reject a painting with a religious theme or decide not to display the work – assuming it was good enough that it would otherwise be displayed. But a science teacher assigning a geology paper on the Grand Canyon would need to specify the kinds of scientific evidence required if the intent is to exclude a religious explanation, such as that Noah's flood carved the canyon.
The model policy included in the law requires that student speakers open and close all graduation ceremonies. A student scheduled to speak elsewhere in the program – such as the valedictorian – would not be eligible. The school would define the subject matter for all graduation speeches. Religious content related to the topic would be allowed.
All other venues where a student speaks
For any other assembly or school activity where a student would speak, the model policy says the school district would create a neutral system for choosing speakers. Eligible students would be invited to place their names on a list. Names would be randomly drawn and matched to speaking events. The subject of the speech must be "related to the purpose of the event." Religious content could not be excluded if it meets that standard. Other students who have traditionally addressed school audiences – school officers, homecoming kings and queens, etc. – would also be covered by this policy.
Law on religion in school spurs fear
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 weeks.
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 faiths.
"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 system?
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 rights.
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 schools.
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.
New state law on religious expression in schools draws mixed reactions
By Wendy Gragg
Waco Tribune-Herald staff writer
Thursday, August 09, 2007
Central Texas students will have the chance to voice their religious beliefs in public schools this year — but then again, they already could.
The new state law protecting students' religious expression in school isn't groundbreaking, but it's causing quakes of concern as school districts try to please parties on all sides of the issue.
Waco Independent School District board member David Schleicher said federal guidelines on religion in public schools already were pretty clear. He's concerned that the new law may muddy the waters for Texas schools.
"In fixing something that's not already broken, the Legislature risked breaking it," he said.
In June, Gov. Rick Perry signed House Bill 3678, also known as the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act.
The law requires public school boards to adopt a policy allowing students a limited forum to air their religious viewpoints.
The law would make graduation ceremonies, at the very least, an occasion for religious expression by a student leader, such as the senior class president.
The law also says that students can't be discriminated against for expressing religious views in their homework or other assignments.
The new law doesn't vary much from the rules regarding religion in public schools that already have been outlined by the U.S. Department of Education.
Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Fort Bend, who championed the legislation, said it clears up the federal rules.
"This bill leaves no doubt that individual religious expression is permissible in schools in a wide range of contexts," Howard told the Fort Bend Star. "It is a win-win for students and school officials alike, both of whom are now uncertain how to navigate what has become muddied, constitutional waters."
An added obligation
The main difference seems to be that the new law doesn't just give permission for students to express religious viewpoints, it requires districts to provide an outlet for those viewpoints. Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards, said that mandate and its potential for controversy have some educators on edge.
Baskin wrote an analysis of the law that warns about the challenges districts may face, including litigation from minority-view families who feel the speeches are one-sided, majority-view families offended by hearing a minority view, people who object to the new law and those who think the school district hasn't implemented it enough.
Laws regarding religion in public schools put school districts between a rock and a hard place because litigious advocacy groups are lined up on both sides ready to sue at a moment's notice, said Tom Hutton, senior staff attorney with the National School Board Association.
Hutton said Texas is not alone in creating new legislation on the issue of faith in schools.
"We see this all the time. It's very difficult for school districts, politically as well as legally," he said. "It's hard to make everyone happy."
Rabbi Gordon Fuller of Waco's Congregation Agudath Jacob is concerned that the forum for religious viewpoints could alienate students of a minority religion.
"As I read this bill, it is both an unwise and unenforceable attempt at allowing public schools to have students voice their religious views, which can only serve to emphasize differences between students and make those of minority religions feel intimidated," he said.
Schleicher, who said he would fall on his sword to defend religious liberties, also expressed concern for students who are in a school's religious minority.
"I will do everything to make sure we protect the right of students to express their religious views and the rights of students who don't share the views being expressed," he said.
WISD superintendent Dr. Roland Hernandez said he thinks students should be able to express their views on faith as long as the district tries to balance the expression of viewpoints and as long as it isn't a distraction in school.
"We can't let it make us lose focus that school is school," he said.
TASB, which regularly leads Texas school districts through the maze of education policy, is trying to help make districts aware of the new law and the responsibilities that come with it.
TASB sent its members the model policy that accompanied the bill's text, as well as an alternative policy crafted by TASB.
How schools respond
Baskin said she has heard from several districts that are taking the time to produce their own version of the policy to fit their local needs.
"They don't want to rush to adopt something that won't work well," she said. "It really is going to be an instance of local control."
WISD officials are working on two drafts of a policy to bring to the school board for approval at a special meeting Aug. 23.
Baskin said many school districts support letting students exercise their freedoms of religion and speech. What has them concerned is the time and money that would be spent to fight off lawsuits stemming from students speaking their minds on faith.
"The problem is it comes at the cost of kids' education," Hutton said.
* The Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act — Requires school districts to adopt policies allowing a limited public forum for students to express their religious viewpoints. The law also protects students' religious expression in homework and other assignments.
* Bible classes — Requires the State Board of Education to create curriculum for classes on the history and literature of the Bible.
* The Texas Pledge of Allegiance — Adds the words "under God" to the state pledge. "Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible."
Church-state cases to remember
* Engle v. Vitale (1962): The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a group of parents who complained that a New York school district policy that mandated a prayer be said each morning violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, as it was applied to the states through the 14th Amendment. The case did not say prayer in schools was not allowed, simply that the prayer could not be mandated by a government entity, in this case the schools. School-led prayer is not permitted, even if students are given the option not to participate.
* Abington v. Schempp (1963): A school's policy in Pennsylvania that began each day with a Bible reading and a prayer was ruled unconstitutional, because even if it was optional for students, it was still obligatory in nature and schools cannot forbid or aid religious function. This case introduced the secular purpose and primary effect test, in which courts look at the intention of the legislation (which must be secular in nature) and enforcement of the law (which must not prohibit or enhance religion).
Note: In both of the cases above, judges said that a study of comparative religions or the study of any religion based in literature or history that was presented objectively would be consistent with the First Amendment.
* Lee v. Weisman (1992): A family objected to a Rhode Island school's policy in which a clergy member was invited to lead a prayer at the start and end of graduation ceremonies. The court said states may not write a prayer and require it be said at civic occasions (graduations, football games, etc). This was later reinforced in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, in which a school had a student council representative deliver a prayer at football games. A group of Mormon and Catholic students objected to the election policy, and the court agreed that even if the person leading the prayer is elected by a majority, it is unconstitutional because individual rights are not subject to a majority opinion.
* Widmar v. Vincent (1981): In 1977, the University of Missouri at Kansas City said religious student groups could not use the public university's facilities to meet because it would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. A religious organization that previously had been allowed to meet on campus filed suit, and the court ruled that the university had created an open public forum because there were more than 100 groups allowed to meet on campus, and to prohibit a group from doing so based on its content would violate free speech.
Note: Middle schools in Waco report that there are religious clubs that meet on school grounds after school hours. While several area high schools say there were no religious organizations that met last year, to start a club, officials said, students would simply have to have enough interest and submit a proposal to the principal or other administrative officials. The religious nature of a club would pose no reason for it not to be approved, they said.
— Kathleen Thurber
School boards in legal limbo over expression law
By Martha Deller and Jessamy Brown
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007
Marian Ward says a prayer before a Santa Fe (Texas) High football game. The practice led to a key Supreme Court ruling.
A new law meant to create more opportunities for students to express religious viewpoints in public schools has left Texas school districts in a quandary.
The Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, which passed during the spring legislative session, gives districts until Sept. 1 to adopt a policy designating school events where a public forum will be provided for students who want to speak.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, took the unusual step of including a model policy for school districts to adopt.
"We thought it would be very, very simple for them," said Houston attorney Kelly Coghlan, who drafted the law and the model policy. "They could look at the legislation, adopt the policy, and by adopting the policy they would be in complete compliance with the law."
But school district attorneys aren't so sure.
Some are certain that the law conflicts with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and will lead schools straight to the courthouse.
"Both sides are going to sue," said Dennis Eichelbaum, an Austin attorney whose firm represents about 100 Texas school districts, including Castleberry in River Oaks.
"You may have the ACLU on one side saying this promotes prayer, and you may have Liberty Legal Institute on the other side saying you can't discriminate against this person based on their religious viewpoint."
Districts are getting conflicting advice on adopting a policy to comply with the law.
The Texas Association of School Boards has written a sample policy for districts that differs from the model policy, prompting Coghlan to warn school districts that adopting the TASB policy could open them up to lawsuits.
What districts are doing
This week, the Carroll school district's attorney and administrators backed off their original recommendation that the school board adopt the TASB policy.
On Monday, the district's attorneys advised using the model policy, so administrators changed their recommendation and canceled a school board discussion that night.
"We are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. We feel like our best position is to go with the state version," said Derek Citty, Carroll's assistant superintendent for administrative services. "We are trying to the do the right thing by our kids and do something we can defend legally."
Cleburne school officials followed a similar path before deciding to adopt the model policy.
"We were considering the model one, then we looked at the alternative one, then we went back to the model one," Assistant Superintendent Carolyn Cody said.
The Castleberry school district will not adopt the model policy, Superintendent Gary Jones said.
The district plans to adopt either the TASB policy or a version written by Eichelbaum's law firm.
The Grapevine-Colleyville, Mansfield and Arlington school districts, like most others, have not made a decision. The Fort Worth school board will discuss the law at its meeting Tuesday.
Many districts won't have a policy in place by the deadline because "there has not been enough time to make an informed decision," said Joy Baskin, TASB's director of legal services.
Howard, the state representative, said he was surprised by the controversy when he recently returned after nearly a month out of state.
"I understand that the Texas Association of School Boards wants to rewrite the law, which is not their prerogative," Howard said.
Districts do not have to adopt the model policy, so long as they adopt a policy that follows the law.
But in hindsight, Howard said, it might have been better for the Legislature to mandate the model policy because some "renegade administrators may think they don't have to follow the law."
"That's why we have lawsuits," he said.
Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act
Questions and answers about the new law, the model policy and the TASB policy.
What does the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act require?
A school district must adopt a policy that designates school events where students can speak publicly in any capacity. Graduation is the only event that must be included in that list. Districts may designate other events.
The policy must include "neutral criteria" for selecting students who will speak publicly at the event(s).
Districts can adopt the model policy that accompanies the law, the policy drafted by the Texas Association of School Boards or a policy drafted by their own attorneys.
What are some provisions in the model policy that accompanies the law?
Student speakers will introduce football games, and make opening announcements during the school day and other events to be designated by the district.
Students who are eligible to speak include those in the top two grades of the school who are student council officers, class officers in the school's highest grade, football team captains and students in other positions of honor designated by the district.
Students who meet those criteria and volunteer to speak publicly will have their names drawn randomly and assigned to speak at one of the events.
A student must stay on the subject of the event and may not engage in obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd or indecent speech.
The district will state orally or in writing that the district does not endorse the student's speech.
How does the alternative policy drafted by the Texas Association of School Boards differ from the model policy?
Student speakers will be given a forum once a week. They will introduce student pledges and the required daily moment of silence, and they will be given a 30-second forum after the pledges and moment of silence. There is no mention of football games in the TASB policy.
Students who are eligible to speak include those in the highest two grades of the school who are not in a disciplinary placement at the time of the event.
A student must stay on the subject of the event and may not engage in speech that is obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd or indecent; that promotes illegal drug use; that creates cause to believe it will interfere with school activities or others' rights; that violates intellectual property, privacy or personal rights; that defames another person; or that advocates or is likely to incite lawless action.
The TASB policy defines the phrase "to publicly speak" as addressing an audience at a school event using the student's own words in a message that has not been approved in advance. It also states that a public forum for student speech will not be created at events where other students are merely making brief introductions or announcements.
Reactions from two attorneys:
Kelly Coghlan, the Houston attorney who wrote the state's model policy, says the TASB's definition of "to publicly speak" would let school districts avoid the required public forum altogether by simply requiring all student introductions and speeches to be approved in advance. "The act is entirely thwarted and turned on its head via the TASB definitions," Coghlan wrote on his Web site, www.christianattorney.com.
Dennis Eichelbaum, an Austin attorney whose law firm represents Texas school districts, says the model policy is an attempt to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Doe vs. Santa Fe ISD, in which the court held that the Santa Fe, Texas, district's policy of broadcasting student-led prayers at football games was unconstitutional.
Martha Deller, 817-390-7857 Jessamy Brown, 817-685-3876
Letter to Superintendents and School Board Trustees of Texas
by Representatives Charlie Howard and Warren Chisum
Texas Legislature, Austin, Texa
August 10, 2007
Dear Superintendents and School Board Trustees of Texas:
As the legislative joint-authors of the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act ("RVAA") which received overwhelming bipartisan approval of 108-28 in the House and 27-3 in the Senate, we have been asked to address some issues regarding RVAA's model policy ("Model Policy"). RVAA requires all districts to "adopt and implement a local policy regarding a limited public forum and voluntary student expression of religious viewpoints" and states that "if a school district voluntarily adopts and follows the model policy…the district is in compliance with the provisions of this subchapter covered by the model policy."
The Model Policy underwent the legislative scrutiny of debate and hearings before the Senate Education Committee and House State Affairs Committee, and, as State law has the imprimatur of the Texas Legislature, Governor, and thus the citizens of Texas. If a school district adopts and follows RVAA's Model Policy, the district is deemed to be in compliance with RVAA. This is the only way a district can have this assurance—and that's one less worry for the district.
Furthermore, since the Attorney General defends legislation, and the Model Policy is a part of this legislation, adoption of the Model Policy should assure a district the assistance of the Attorney General in the event of a facial challenge to the district's adopted Model Policy. While a district is free to have an outside group or person draft a different policy, that district will have no assurance that it is in compliance with RVAA and will be on its own to defend that policy against legal challenges to its lawyer's experimentations.
The Legislature has not granted any person or organization rule making authority to, inter alia, add definitions outside of or contrary to the clear language, intent, and legislative history of RVAA or to narrow or change its applicability or efficacy in any manner. Some schools have inquired about the TASB "alternative sample policy" ("TASB Policy") and similar alternative policies. The TASB Policy significantly deviates from RVAA's Model Policy. TASB adds definitions outside of RVAA, which are not in the text of RVAA, and which conflict with the clear words, meaning, and legislative history of RVAA. The definitions added by TASB have the effect of narrowing and restricting the applicability of RVAA.
As one example, TASB's newly added definition of "to publicly speak" is as follows: "For purposes of this policy, ‘to publicly speak' means to address an audience at a school event using the student's own words. A student is not using his or her own words when the student is reading or performing from an approved script, is delivering a message that has been approved in advance or otherwise supervised by school officials, or is making brief introductions or announcements." This narrow definition invites schools to avoid application of RVAA by simply requiring that everything spoken by a student over a microphone (or otherwise) first be "approved in advance" and/or be "supervised by school officials" and/or be deemed as "brief introductions or announcements." Since all student introductions and speeches are "supervised by school officials" and since a school could begin requiring that all student introductions and speeches be reviewed and "approved in advance," application of RVAA could be entirely avoided. The text of RVAA (Section 25.152) demonstrates that "publicly speak" finds broad definition via the first part of the sentence as whenever something is "publicly stated" by a student. Had the Legislature intended to include these additional restrictions before a student could voluntarily express a religious viewpoint without discrimination, the Legislature would have written them into RVAA. Similarly, TASB adds a narrowing definition to "school event" although "opening announcements and greetings for the school day," "football games," "other athletic events," "assemblies," "pep rallies," and the like, are, at a minimum, "school event[s]" under RVAA. These deviations from RVAA seem to be driven by a basic misunderstanding of the distinction between "topic/subject" (which schools retain authority to set) and "viewpoint." There are additional parts of the TASB policy and information provided by TASB regarding RVAA which we believe to be inaccurate and incomplete. For these and other reasons, it is our opinion that adoption of the TASB Policy, and similar policies following the TASB model, will put school districts in violation of RVAA.
Separately, after RVAA's enactment, the Supreme Court decided Morse v. Frederick which added a new prohibition against "speech promoting illegal drug use." This would have been in the Model Policy if decided earlier. It is our intent that districts may add this new prohibition to their policy and continue to be within the Model Policy as being "substantially identical."
RVAA's Model Policy was intended to make it easy and inexpensive for schools to comply with the law. It is our hope that districts will adopt and follow RVAA's Model Policy as the safest, least expensive, and only sure way to know they are in compliance with all aspects of RVAA.
Representative Charlie Howard
Chairman, Local and Consent Calendars
Representative Warren Chisum
In Sugar Land, Perry signs religion-in-schools bill
Legislation supports students' rights to discuss faith
By RUTH RENDON
Aug. 14, 2007
SUGAR LAND — Student Natasha Gualy was all smiles Tuesday knowing that when she shares her Christian faith at school, she will not be reprimanded or humiliated.
Gov. Rick Perry conducted a ceremonial signing of House Bill 3678 aimed at reaffirming students' rights to express religious viewpoints. Perry officially signed the bill, also known as the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, in June.
Surrounded by schoolchildren at the Clements High School library, Perry signed the bill sponsored by state Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land.
The bill does not create a new law but rather provides a model policy that school districts can adopt.
"What it does is create a win-win situation for the schoolchildren, school administrators and the taxpayers of the state of Texas," Howard said. Many school districts across the state, he said, have been sued by parents after children were prohibited from talking about their faith, saying "Merry Christmas" or handing out religious Valentine's Day cards.
'Not the Texas way'
Using case law and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the bill lays out what is admissible in Texas schools. The Supreme Court has ruled that religious discussion in schools is legal, he said.
"For years, our children have not been able to share their faith and beliefs for fear that they'll end up in the principal's office. That's sure not the American way and that's sure not the Texas way," Perry said to a round of applause from those in attendance.
Some school districts have misapplied the law by stifling religious expression when it should be permissible, leading to lawsuits filed by parents, Howard said.
Now entering eighth grade at McMeans Junior High in the Katy school district, Natasha said she vividly remembers the humiliation she encountered in third grade when an assistant principal made her retrieve faith bracelets she had given friends during recess.
Federal lawsuit pends
"I made them myself because I wanted to share the love of God," the 13-year-old recounted Tuesday after Perry signed the bill. Natasha said at the time she was really confused because her Sunday school class focused on sharing and a person of authority at her school was telling her not to share.
"I was trying to figure out who was right. I still remember that," she said.
Natasha was one of many students who testified before state lawmakers this spring in support of the bill. Her mother, Cynthia Gualy, said the law was necessary to keep parents like her from having to file a lawsuit against school districts.
Gualy is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Katy school district that is pending in federal court over her children's rights to religious expressions.
Her daughter, she said, "felt very ashamed and publicly humiliated" after the youngster was made to take back the bracelets she gave her friends. Gualy said it was wrong for children to have to keep quiet about their Christian beliefs at school.
Limited public forum
The bill will require school districts to adopt and implement a policy establishing a limited public forum for student speakers at school events and ensures other protections for students expressing their religious viewpoint.
The model that school districts can adopt offers protection for a student's expression of religious viewpoint; guidelines for student speakers at graduation ceremonies and other events; protection of religious expression in class assignments; and freedom to organize religious groups and activities.
Gualy and other parents obtained a restraining order in February 2006 preventing the Katy school district from interfering with pupils handing out valentines with religious themes. The school district has denied such interference.
Ignore the end-run
Tue, Aug. 14, 2007
As they prepare for classes to resume Aug. 27, many Texas school districts are faced with finding better ways to meet state and federal accountability measures; smarter ways to prepare students for higher education and the work world; and more effective ways to reduce the number of dropouts.
Now, school boards are being distracted by lawsuit threats spurred by a new law that addresses what is hardly a widespread problem in Texas schools.
Dubbed the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, the law requires school districts to adopt policies that would allow prayer or other religious expression at public events involving student speakers. The law also purports to protect students' ability to form faith-based clubs and to express their religion in class assignments.
In many ways, the law is superfluous because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, for instance, that religious clubs have the same access to meeting facilities as other student groups; that the First Amendment covers nondisruptive student speech; and that students can express religious views in public settings as long as they're acting voluntarily without sponsorship or direction from school officials.
But Supreme Court rulings apparently aren't enough to dispel confusion for administrators -- or to satisfy advocates who believe there isn't enough prayer in public schools.
The new law, which takes effect Sept. 1, includes a "model policy" that school boards can adopt. But attorneys for many districts worry that the law itself might conflict with Supreme Court rulings, so some districts are considering versions besides the "model," including language proposed by the Texas Association of School Boards.
Houston attorney Kelly Coghlan, who takes credit for drafting the model policy, has warned districts that adopting the TASB policy "will put a school in violation of the Act and open that school to legal claims."
Coghlan has been trying to rewrite the law ever since the Supreme Court in 2000 struck down school-sponsored prayers before football games in a case from the Santa Fe school district. (Note that football games come before graduation ceremonies in the Texas law.)
Republican state Reps. Charlie Howard of Sugar Land and Warren Chisum of Pampa, who sponsored the law, also have posted a notice on the Texas Education Agency Web site advising districts to accept the "model" language.
School boards thus are faced with near-certain lawsuits from Coghlan -- or probable lawsuits from critics who believe the law goes too far toward enabling schools to endorse religion.
Trustees are elected to develop policies that they believe serve their constituents while complying with the law. But they shouldn't be intimidated by advocates attempting an end-run around Supreme Court rulings.
Debate stirring on religious-speech law
Lawmakers, school board group offer different examples of what schools should do.
By Jason Embry
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
A new law designed to protect students' religious expression at school events has sparked controversy and led to debate between the lawmakers who wrote it and the school districts that must put it into practice.
Two key points of contention are whether schools would be able to sidestep the law by pre-approving student speeches at school events, and whether school districts should make it easier for students to express their religious views at football games and during morning announcements.
"This law will create litigation," said Dennis Eichelbaum, a Frisco lawyer whose firm represents hundreds of school districts. "A school district will be sued for not complying with the law or for complying with the law, but someone will complain it was an endorsement of religion."
The brewing debate highlights the legal minefield that legislators and educators must traverse when issues of religious expression arise at public schools.
Saying that schools were censoring students' religious speech, Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, and other lawmakers this year pushed House Bill 3678, which said districts should give students' religious expression at student events the same protection as secular speech, provided they are speaking on a permitted topic.
Specifically, the law calls for schools to set up "limited public forums" at graduations and other school events. In the forums, students would be given a nonreligious topic, possibly a broad one such as welcoming guests to a game or graduation, and could include their religious viewpoints. Schools would have to say the viewpoints belonged to the student, not the school.
Each school district in the state must develop its own policy on religious expression for the school year that starts this month. The law includes a model version of the policy that local school boards could adopt.
Last month, the Texas Association of School Boards, which regularly provides sample policies for its 1,036 member school districts, sent districts the state model as well as a sample policy written by association officials. Joy Baskin, director of the association's legal division, said the idea was to provide examples for school boards as they sat down with their lawyers to draw up local rules.
But there were key differences between the policies that came from her group and the one that was written into law.
For one, the model in state law lists football games and school announcements as events at which schools would have to provide for an introductory speaker — and therefore allow the expression of religious views. But the association model does not require school districts to allow such speech at those events.
Another difference between the model policies was more nuanced but could undercut the law, two lawmakers said.
The new law says that students should be allowed to express religious viewpoints during public speech —but does not define what, exactly, public speech is. The school association model, however, defines public speech as the student's own words, and not words approved by school officials.
The lawmakers say they worry that difference would allow districts to avoid the new law by simply requiring school approval of all student remarks. If that happened, those remarks would not be considered public speech and the districts would not have to treat religious expression like any form of secular speech.
"Since all student introductions and speeches are 'supervised by school officials' and since a school could begin requiring that all student introductions and speeches be reviewed and 'approved in advance,' application of (the law) could be entirely avoided," Howard and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Warren Chisum, a Pampa Republican, wrote in a letter distributed to school districts through the Texas Education Agency late last week.
Baskin said her group was not trying to create a way out of the new law, but rather wanted to inform schools that they were not supposed to tell students what to say during the limited public forums.
The two policies also offer different processes for selecting which students would speak.
The two lawmakers told school districts that the best way to make sure they comply with the law is to use the model policy written in the law. "Some of the school boards said they didn't have policies, some of them said they did," Howard said Tuesday. "So we said, 'OK, here's one. If you follow this, you'll have safe harbor from lawsuits.' Nobody can prevent lawsuits, but the whole question is, are you going to win or not?"
But at least some local school districts that will adopt their policies in the next week, including Dripping Springs and Hays Consolidated, are poised to go with rules that look more like those provided by the school board group.
"We just turn to TASB when we're developing policy," said Julie Jerome, a spokeswoman for the Hays Consolidated district.
A spokesman for the Leander school district said the district is crafting a policy based on state mandates but using recommendations from the school board group.
Austin school district spokeswoman Roxanne Evans said trustees are looking at all the alternatives. "We cannot predict which option the board of trustees will select," Evans said.
- Additional material from staff writers Molly Bloom and Melissa Mixon
Religious speech policy in works
Denton school board members hold first vote ahead of state deadline
By Lowell Brown / Staff Writer
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Faced with a looming state deadline, Denton school board members reluctantly moved forward with a policy that would let students express religious views at school events.
The board voted 6-0 in favor of the policy Tuesday on the first of two readings, despite concerns over potential legal challenges and the state's intrusion into local matters.
"This is a political football that the Legislature has handed us, and it's hot no matter which side of the football you're on," board President Charles Stafford said.
A second and final vote is expected Aug. 28.
Board member Glenna Harris abstained from voting Tuesday, saying she believes the state law that requires the local policy is an unconstitutional breach of church-state separation.
"They [state legislators] have passed this law to entice and incite a lawsuit," Harris said. "At a time when we're trying to educate our students, here we are in the line of fire."
The Legislature passed the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act this year with the goal of giving public school students more freedom to express religious views.
State Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, co-sponsor of the bill, argued that it was needed because of growing confusion over religious expression in schools. He said some school districts have stifled religious speech by not allowing students to say "Merry Christmas" or talk about Jesus during Easter.
The law sets a Sept. 1 deadline for school districts to pass policies creating limited public forums for students' religious speech.
Denton's policy establishes guidelines for when and how students could express religious viewpoints during school events, Deputy Superintendent Jamie Wilson said.
"If we had student speakers speaking at events on our campus — be it graduation, athletic events, fine arts programs, awards ceremonies — we would provide a limited forum for their religious viewpoints," Wilson said.
Denton's policy largely mirrors one developed by the Texas Association of School Boards, a nonprofit educational group.
Legislators also provided a model policy for districts to use, but Denton officials rejected it as too burdensome.
In a letter posted on the Texas Education Agency Web site, co-sponsors of the religious-expression bill said districts could adopt alternative policies at their own risk.
"While a district is free to have an outside group or person draft a different policy, that district will have no assurance that it is in compliance with RVAA [the state law] and will be on its own to defend that policy against legal challenges to its lawyers' experimentations," wrote Howard and state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa.
Denton school district attorney Randy Stout disagreed, saying the state attorney general would defend a district sued on constitutional grounds, regardless of which policy it adopted. Stout also said legal challenges could follow the adoption of either the state model or Texas Association of School Boards alternative.
Board member Jim Alexander said he would vote for the alternative policy with the understanding that the board could amend it as needed.
LOWELL BROWN can be reached at 940-566-6882. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
DENTON ISD RELIGIOUS-EXPRESSION POLICY
In compliance with state law, the Denton school board is considering a policy allowing students to express religious viewpoints at certain school events. The board approved the policy on its first reading Tuesday and will have a second and final vote Aug. 28. The following are excerpts from the policy:
* "The District shall treat a student's voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the District treats a student's voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject and shall not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject."
* "The District hereby creates a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events at which a student is to publicly speak. For each speaker, the District shall set a maximum time limit reasonable and appropriate to the occasion."
* "For purposes of this policy, a 'school event' is a school-sponsored event or activity that does not constitute part of the required instruction for a segment of the school's curriculum, regardless of whether the event takes place during or after the school day."
* "For purposes of this policy, 'to publicly speak' means to address an audience at a school event using the student's own words. A student is not using his or her own words when the student is reading or performing from an approved script, is delivering a message that has been approved in advance or otherwise supervised by school officials, or is making brief introductions or announcements."
SOURCE: Denton school district
NISD tables student expression policy
Confusion surrounding bill causing controversy
By MICHELE MARCOTTE
The Daily Sentinel
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Nacogdoches Independent School District trustees tabled a student expression policy Thursday, that, among other things, protects a student's right to express religious viewpoints in school.
Meeting in regular session, trustees agreed to remove the policy from the consent items under the recommendation of NISD Superintendent Dr. Rodney Hutto.
Hutto stated prior to the meeting that the policy required by House Bill 3678 is not currently written in a clear cut manner, and appears to be causing controversy across the state.
"We're going to put it on hold for right now," he said.
Dan Quinn, communication director for the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan organization that supports public education, said Nacogdoches is just one of several Texas school districts that is reluctant to move forward with the required policy.
Quinn said the main concern among school districts appears to be the phrasing of the limited public forum.
The phrasing enables certain students to speak at school events, and gives them the freedom to include religious statements in their speech, as long as it pertains to the intended subject, Quinn said
For example, NHS principal Dennis Williams said if students are attending a pep rally, and a student receives the microphone, that student, or any other student, can freely express what he/she wants to say under law.
"The only way this can be prevented is if the message is scripted," he said. "For instance, when students report the morning news over microphones, that falls under the scripted category."
Quinn noted another concern school districts are having is that when a student receives the microphone and begins to speak about their religious beliefs at a school function, students with different religious beliefs may be subjected to stay and listen under the guidelines of the policy.
"You've got lots of local school officials asking the same question, 'What are we going to do?'" He said.
In addition to the freedom of speaking religious viewpoints, the proposed policy model that school districts can adopt protects a student's religious expression in class assignments and the freedom to organize religious groups and activities.
Board President Tom Davis said the district attorney is currently looking at the policy and at this time the school board is not ready to move forward with it.
BISD tables public forum policy decision
By Jennifer S. Haney/Staff Writer
Aug 20, 2007
Burleson ISD school board members hesitated Aug. 13 on adopting a policy that would establish a limited public forum for student speech that forbids disciplinary action against offensive comments.
The school district may choose a model policy presented by the state or a model policy presented by the Texas Association of School Boards, Superintendent Dr. Mark Jackson said. It's up to board members to decide which policy they select before the first day of the upcoming school year. The state model provides little control for school administrators, possibly leaving the district open to lawsuits, Jackson said. But if the district adopts the TASB model instead of the state model, the district could be in violation of the law, he said.
The new policy requirement comes from House Bill 3678, which was passed in the 80th Legislative Session this spring and signed into law by the governor. The law, Religious Viewpoints Anti-discrimination Act, addresses freedom of religious expression, student speakers, religious expression in class assignments and freedom of association, taking effect during the 2007-08 school year. The law allows students to express religious or other viewpoints in a public forum at school functions as long as vulgar and obscene language are not used. If those viewpoints offend people, the law protects students from disciplinary action.
Burleson Mayor Ken Shetter invited BISD to join the Burleson Opportunity Fund at the meeting.
Shetter asked the board to match the city's $25,000 donation for the initial fund startup, but school board members said research must be completed to find funds available for such an investment.
"I believe there's no time like the present to get something started like this," Shetter said.
It is a goal of the Burleson Opportunity Fund for its first year to provide 75 two-year college scholarships to Hill College for Burleson High School graduates, Shetter said.
Burleson City Council members passed a resolution July 26 to create the fund. The purpose is to provide more scholarship money to higher education for Burleson High School graduates, according to a memorandum to the mayor and council members from City Manager Curtis Hawk. The city will contribute funding to the project through the Burleson 4A Economic Development Corp. if approved by that board.
Shetter wants the fund to provide two-year tuition to Hill College for every BHS graduate, he said.
"I think the right place to begin is to focus on community college," Shetter said.
School board members also decided not to buy land adjacent to the Villages of Wakefield, located off Alsbury Street, because the seller made a stipulation in the contract claiming naming rights to the elementary school that would be built on the property. The seller wanted the school named after R.D. Scott, said Ronald Kuehler, assistant superintendent of business.
"I don't like that," board President Ronnie Johnson said. "I have nothing against R.D. Scott. He's a good man. I just don't want someone telling me what to do with something I'm buying ... especially at that price."
Board members amended two district calendars. One calendar listed school board meetings for the upcoming year. Some meetings were pushed back to allow for known conflicts. The other calendar amendment pushed a bad-weather day back so there would be more time for studying for the TAKS test. By moving that day, Cinco de Mayo becomes a holiday for this school year.
Jennifer Haney can be reached at
817-558-2855, ext., 2329 or e-mail at email@example.com.
A captive audience
The Houston Chronicle
Aug. 27, 2007
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.
Schools wrestling with policies under new religious liberties act
Not all districts have set policy on act meant to clarify students' right to expression
By BRANDON FORMBY / The Dallas Morning News
Monday, August 27, 2007
Editor's note: This story is the second installment in The Dallas Morning News' Legislating Your Life series, which examines laws taking effect this week that may affect Texas schools, communities and families.
The Schoolchildren's Religious Liberties Act was meant to clarify how Texas schoolchildren can publicly convey their religious stances on campus and at school events.
Instead, it has created statewide confusion over how districts should comply with the law and added a new layer of divisiveness to an issue already well known for passionate discord – religion in schools.
"It's one of those things that touches deeply held values and beliefs and deeply held beliefs about American tradition," said Catherine Clark, associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards.
The law, which is also called the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, requires Texas school districts to adopt a policy regarding students' voluntary religious expressions. Enacted in June, it has had some North Texas school boards scurrying to implement their guidelines before a new school year begins today.
The act was inspired by lawsuits against school districts from Plano to Santa Fe, Texas, that have curtailed activities such as using school resources to promote a Bible club. In the landmark Santa Fe case, the U.S. Supreme Court said the tiny Gulf Coast school district erred in allowing student-led prayer on school loudspeakers during football games.
"We've had a lot of court cases and in almost every one, the school districts have lost because they're not doing what they're supposed to," said state Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, the law's author.
Who speaks and when
Among other things, the legislation commands districts to define how students are chosen to speak during morning announcements and at school events; not to discriminate if a student expresses his or her religious beliefs; and to state that the student's remarks do not reflect the position of the district.
The law prohibits districts from penalizing students who express religious views in their class work. And districts must allow religious groups to organize and meet in the same manner as other groups.
But many districts, attorneys and experts say confusion doesn't stem from the law itself, which codifies constitutional rights and court decisions.
"The issue is with the school board policy in following that law," said Dennis Eichelbaum, a Frisco attorney who represents more than 100 school districts.
Mr. Howard's law includes a model policy that districts can adopt. It states that student speakers shall introduce football games, morning announcements and other district-chosen events.
Trustees in districts including Carrollton-Farmers Branch and Lancaster approved policies based on the state model last week. Lancaster schools spokeswoman Teri Wilson said because such a policy is new, it may be tweaked later.
"We're just going to continue to monitor it and adjust it as we go forward," she said.
Proponents say districts that adopt the state model will be better protected if someone files suit against them.
"If they'd just go with the law, they'd be clean," said Kelly Shackelford, president of the Texas-based Free Market Foundation and chief counsel at Liberty Legal Institute, which has represented many parents suing school districts over religious expression.
Kelly Coghlan, who was an attorney in the Santa Fe case, drew up the state's model after he consulted with other attorneys, including those at Liberty Legal.
But not everyone agrees that the state's model policy is the best option for districts.
"I can't imagine why you would use a policy written by an attorney that sues school districts," Mr. Eichelbaum said.
Opponents of the state's model say some of its rules, such as student speakers at football games, don't apply to all school districts. Among other things, they say, the state model is flawed because it isn't aligned with the broader law in which it is included.
Ms. Clark, the Texas Association of School Boards official, said her agency developed an alternate model because they also felt the state's model didn't line up with the language of the law. TASB officials don't endorse either model and encouraged districts to work with their attorneys to develop a policy.
"There's different nuances for different districts depending on their size and how they set things up," said Barbara Williams, a TASB spokeswoman.
The Rockwall school board is expected to adopt a policy based on TASB's model later this month. Board President Brad Lamberth said officials took the agency's alternate model and tweaked it to create a custom-fit policy. But they don't expect it to change campus life much.
"I think it's fairly consistent with what we practice anyway," he said.
Mr. Howard said TASB's creation of an alternate model is part of the reason many districts are puzzled about how to respond to the law.
"If you've got the Legislature telling you one thing and TASB saying something else, I think that causes confusion, don't you?" he said.
Yet, some school districts are straying from both models and opting for policies their attorneys created. Fort Worth officials are recommending such a move to their trustees this month. Plano passed a policy last week that is based solely on the language of the law itself, not the model policy it offered.
Duncan Webb, Plano's school board president, said trustees didn't like how the state model allows students to express themselves at a football game when parents and community members are in the stands.
"We decided it was not the right forum to try that," Mr. Webb said.
Watching for hiccups
Last week the Carroll school board heard from state Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, who presented information about the egislative session. She said trustees expressed frustration with Mr. Howard's law, which she had supported.
"Time will tell if it can be worked out without or with the Legislature revisiting the matter," she said.
Some school officials are expecting hiccups no matter what. The Dallas school district's attorneys have yet to recommend a policy, in part because they're waiting to see what comes of other districts' decisions.
And Cedar Hill school officials, who also went with a policy developed by attorneys, expect more problems enforcing a policy than in choosing one.
Kim Lewis, chief operating officer, said, "It may be more difficult going forward because the first time we have to deal with it, we're going to be scratching our heads and digging for the policy."
Staff writer Staci Hupp contributed to this report.
RELIGION IN SCHOOLS
The new law on religious expression in schools requires Texas school districts to adopt a policy to:
• Establish a "limited public forum" for student speakers at school events that does not discriminate against expressions of faith.
• Develop a neutral method of choosing students to speak at school events and graduation ceremonies.
• Ensure that students don't offer obscene or vulgar speech.
• Declare that the district does not endorse the student's views.
Students would be able to:
• Express religious beliefs in assignments without being penalized.
• Organize religious-oriented clubs that would have the same access to school facilities as secular groups.
Dallas Morning News research
Board puts faith in state's religious anti-discrimination policy
By Ann Marie Shambaugh, Staff Writer
The Little Elm Journal (near Denton)
Star Community Newspaper
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Many an elected official's vote comes down to the belief that he or she is making the best decision.
It took two meetings and three separate votes, but the Little Elm ISD board of trustees adopted the state's model policy for the district to comply with the state's new "Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act," which requires districts to provide a public forum where students can express their faith.
Gov. Rick Perry signed the act, formally known as House Bill 3678, in June. Since then, districts across the state have been pressed to adopt a policy that complies with the bill by the Sept. 1 deadline, while attempting to avoid a policy that could spark lawsuits at the same time.
The board debated adopting a model state policy that was supplied with the bill, a policy crafted by the Texas Association of School Boards, or to do nothing and wait to see how the legal battle plays out come Sept. 1.
"Whatever we adopt, we're going to follow it as closely as we know how," Superintendent Steve Murray said.
After much discussion over the benefits and pitfalls of each option, the board voted 4-3 to not wait and do nothing, then they voted 3-3 to adopt the TASB model, followed by a 4-3 vote that made the state's model policy the new policy at LEISD. Board members Bill Hidell, Curtis Savage, and Molly Fulks voted against the state's policy. The board agreed that the TASB model provided a looser interpretation of the new act, such as not stating which students can volunteer to be a public speaker at events such as morning announcements and football games, as the state's model does.
Murray said that the administration team supported the state model, but said that either policy is a change because the district did not have student public speakers before.
"This is entirely different landscape than what we've ever seen before," he said.
Board member Duane Peterson suggested that the district may not need to act now, but instead wait to see who sues which districts with either policy.
"It seems to me it's more prudent as a district to take the ‘wait and see attitude,'" Peterson said.
Murray, however, advised against that option, saying that the district may appear to be "thumbing their noses" at the Legislature's requirements.
Board Member Lisa Glenn gave another reason to act immediately.
"In not doing anything, you're opening yourself up for both sides to sue you," she said.
The board mentioned the possibility that the state could defend and protect all districts that adopted its policy, but all were skeptical, saying that any small differing detail could be found to leave the district to fend for itself.
School district officials across the state are worrying about lawsuits from all sides, as the topic of religion in school can be a controversial n and expensive - issue.
"I think people are poised on both sides to test the legal waters after Sept. 1," Murray said.
Students already are allowed to express their religious viewpoints in school, but according to a press release from the governor's office, "some Texas schools have been misapplying the law and restricting students' legal expression."
The bill also mandates that local policies protect religious expression in homework and the right for students to gather in religious groups.
School districts wary of law
By Sarah Chacko / Staff Writer
Saturday, September 1, 2007
Educators and administrators say they are waiting and watching to see what comes of a new state law that explicitly allows students to express their religious views at school events.
Though most Denton-area school districts passed policies within the past month to address where and when students will be allowed to speak, administrators say they are concerned the state law will not protect them from possible lawsuits.
“We’re trying to do scheduling and get programs in place, and we’re all terribly distracted by this,” Argyle Superintendent Jason Ceyanes said in an interview last week.
This year, the Legislature passed the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, which creates “limited public forums” at student events, with the stated intention of giving students more freedom to express religious views.
The Argyle school board approved the state model policy but altered it to exclude students speaking specifically at football games or in morning announcements.
“The actual Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act does not specify football games; it does not specify morning announcements,” Ceyanes said. “When and where you allow the speech is a local decision.”
Since the board did not identify in the policy any other activities in which the district will have introductory speakers, that decision will be left to administrators, Ceyanes said. And until further notice, district administrators have decided that no students will be allowed to speak at events or activities, regardless of whether the viewpoints of the student are secular or religious.
“If no one is speaking, no one is being discriminated against,” he said.
Ceyanes said there will be some questions as to why students are no longer speaking at certain events, but this is not something that the administrators wanted for the district.
“This is our response to this highly controversial piece of state law,” he said.
Superintendents of local districts that adopted the state’s model policy or policies with slight modifications said that were ultimately not deviating from what they had already allowed. But they said they anticipated further discussion on the issue, nonetheless.
“This law creates a number of problems,” Ceyanes said. “It is my concern, both personally and professionally, that this removes a great deal of discretion for the administration to review what is said before students speak on a microphone.”
District officials, religious leaders and lawyers offer a variety of examples of religious speech that could be used to alienate one group of people.
Ceyanes said that under the law, students could speak of prejudices, extreme religious beliefs and other potentially offensive subjects.
“And that kind of speech is not appropriate in an educational environment,” he said.
But Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, who voted in favor of the act, said she doesn’t think this will be a great burden on school administrators and educators.
“I don’t think this is some huge bar to jump over,” she said. “Teachers handle issues like this every day and are quite capable of handling it. They deal with students expressing inappropriate thoughts. I think religious beliefs should not be an inappropriate thought.”
Crownover agrees that no new rights are being given to students under the law; it only codifies previous rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I think the attempt was to make it crystal clear that it wasn’t the job of the teacher or principal to suppress any expression of religious thought,” she said.
Dennis Eichelbaum of the Schwartz and Eichelbaum law firm, which represents the Krum school district among others, has helped school districts create their own policies to meet the legislative requirements while trying to avoid potential lawsuits. He said local concerns are different, and every school district should have its say in what meets its specific needs.
“You can’t really use a cookie-cutter policy that will work for Houston and Krum,” he said.
Kelly Coghlan, a Houston constitutional trial lawyer who claims to be the legal author of the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, rebutted Eichelbaum’s views on the state model policy on his law practice’s Web site, www.christianattorney.com.
On the site, Coghlan states that if a school is challenged for adopting and following the state model policy, it is an attack on the legislation itself, “and a school should clearly enjoy the assistance of the Attorney General in any such suit.”
However, if a school district adopts a different policy, that district will have no assurance of being in compliance with state law and will be on its own to defend against legal challenges, Coghlan states on the site.
But Eichelbaum said that the Attorney General only defends the law itself. School districts will have to pay the damages and attorney fees, he said.
“It’s the damages that everyone has to worry about,” he said.
And lawyers say that there is no guarantee, even with the state model policy, that a school district will not get sued.
“While it does attempt to provide protection for the schools, it also provides a target for people to shoot at,” said Randy Stout, the Denton school district’s legal counsel.
Area administrators said they are following the advice of their districts’ legal counsels, reading Web sites and watching other districts. No one said that they felt their district policy was infallible, and some said they are just hoping to avoid becoming the test case if the law is challenged.
“The preponderance of legal opinion is that the state model policy is more likely to get one sued than the TASB [Texas Association of School Board’s] policy,” Denton School Board President Charles Stafford said. “Complying with the law is important. Keeping safe from legal prosecution is important. Taxpayers in this district have better places to put their money than legal defense funds.”
Stafford said district officials and educators have to be careful not to offend anybody and that is the way policies have been developed over the past several years.
“What I really think is the truth here — the Legislature kind of handed the school districts a hand grenade with the pin pulled,” he said. “It doesn’t matter which way you throw the thing, someone is going to get hurt. There is going to be controversy, and anger and disappointment no matter what we do.”
While previous laws have established students’ rights to host religious clubs on school property, voluntarily say a prayer or express religious viewpoints through class assignments, this law brings into question the freedom students have to proselytize, Stafford said.
“I believe in religious freedom, strongly,” Stafford said. “It’s just that, well, you have to be very careful in how you structure one person’s right to express them. One person’s set of rights can run quickly against someone else’s set of rights.”
Geoffrey Dennis, rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, said that while the state is attempting to offer a new solution, the problem remains the same. Because communities are overwhelmingly Christian, and more student speakers are likely to be Christians, there will be controversy as soon as a Hindu, Buddhist or Jewish student voices their religious opinion.
“I think the great moment will come when the first child that is a self-identified Wiccan [a pagan religion] wants to offer a prayer at a football game,” Dennis said. “There is law and there is what people allow to happen, and it’s not the same thing.”
To him, the act seems to be endorsed by a certain segment of the population, with the specific goal of promoting their own, not everyone’s, religious views.
“Inevitably what happens is that people try to use the power of the school system to promote religious ideas and religious beliefs,” he said. “And that’s where we object.”
Dennis said laws already protect students, like those who participate in the Interfaith Club at Lewisville High School.
The club invites people from different religious communities to attend the group’s meetings and explain their faith.
“They learned together,” said Dennis, who has spoken to the club. “That’s a good use of public access. I don’t think this law does anything to enhance that type of dialog.”
SARAH CHACKO can be reached at 940-566-6876. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
RELIGIOUS VIEWPOINTS ANTIDISCRIMINATION ACT
The following are highlights from House Bill 3678, also known as the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act or the Schoolchildren’s Religious Liberties Act, and the state model policy for school districts to follow.
LAW and POLICY: A school district must treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint on a permissible subject in the same manner the district treats a student’s secular voluntary expression.
LAW: School districts must adopt a policy, which must include the establishment of a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events at which a student is to publicly speak.
POLICY: Student speakers will introduce football games; any other athletic events designated by the district; morning announcements; and any additional events designated by the district.
LAW: The policy will require the school district to provide a method, based on neutral criteria, for the selection of student speakers at school events.
POLICY: Only students in the highest two grade levels of the school and who hold one of the following positions of honor based on neutral criteria are eligible to use the limited public forum: student council officers, class officers of the highest grade level in the school, captains of the football team, and other students holding positions of honor as the school district may designate.
POLICY: Certain students, who have attained special positions of honor, such as captains of various sports teams and homecoming kings and queens, will still be allowed to address school audiences as a part of their achieved positions.
POLICY: During graduation ceremonies, only students who are graduating and who hold one of the following neutral criteria positions of honor will be eligible to use the limited public forum: student council officers, class officers, the top here academically ranked graduates, or other student leaders the school district designates.
LAW and POLICY: Student speakers will not engage in obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd or indecent speech; and must state, in writing, orally or both, that the student’s speech does not reflect the endorsement or position of the district.
LAW and POLICY: Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments.
LAW and POLICY: Students may organize prayer groups, religious clubs, or other religious gatherings before, during, and after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other non-curricular student activities and groups.
SOURCE: Texas Legislature Online, www.capitol.state.tx.us
ON THE WEB
View the entire Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, also referred to as the Schoolchildren’s Religious Liberties Act, at: www.capitol.state.tx.us/tlodocs/80R/billtext/html/HB03678F.htm.
Religion gets equal treatment
Law justifiably protects students' rights to voluntary expression
by Kelly Coghlan
Opinion--Dallas Morning News
Thursday, September 6, 2007
The best kept secret of the anti-God faction is this: The Supreme Court has never held all public prayer over a school microphone is unconstitutional; only government prayer is illegal.
In school prayer issues, the word "voluntarily" makes all the difference. Prayer is the expression of a religious viewpoint, and when done voluntarily, it is the student's individual expression and constitutionally protected speech.
Gov. Rick Perry recently signed the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, also known as the Schoolchildren's Religious Liberties Act, which applies to all 1,040 Texas school districts and their 4.5 million students.
This legislation protects the voluntary expression of schoolchildren's religious viewpoints to the same degree as secular and other viewpoints on the same subjects. Thus, if it would be impermissible to shout "I hate gays" from a secular viewpoint, it would be equally impermissible from a religious viewpoint. The "subjects" for discourse are set by the school. Once a subject is permitted, a school may not selectively discriminate against the religious viewpoint.
This law was necessary due to children being forbidden from using words like "Merry Christmas" in December, "Jesus" at Easter, "St. Valentines Day" in February, or from handing out candy canes because of their religious message. Valedictorians were being told to eliminate any references to God at graduations. One superintendent told students "if they prayed they would be disciplined the same as if they had cursed" and then banned "prayers, blessings, invocations and any reference to a deity."
Student's rights were being violated and lawsuits were costing schools hundreds of thousands in legal fees. Schools needed legal direction. Thus this law was passed – 108-28 in the House and 27-3 in the Senate.
Some argue the new law will cause lawsuits. That is unlikely as long as schools adopt and follow the law and its guidelines, which were researched, tested and vetted more than any other Texas law this session.
Before being introduced as a bill, the proposal underwent seven years of scrutiny by constitutional scholars and field-tests in public schools from Texas to Illinois. Superintendents testifying in Austin pointed to not a single instance of student abuse of a speaking opportunity, a complaint by a parent or student, a lawsuit or a demand letter.
This antidiscrimination act codifies existing Supreme Court precedent. In Good News Club vs. Milford, the court held that "speech discussing otherwise permissible subjects cannot be excluded from a limited public forum on the grounds that the subject is discussed from a religious viewpoint ... [Excluding a] religious perspective constitutes unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination." The new Texas law tracks this language.
The First Amendment does not turn schools into religion-free zones, school officials into prayer police, or religious students into criminals. The Constitution assures freedom of religion; not freedom from religion.
Most objections to the antidiscrimination law come from anti-faith groups fearing that, if students are permitted to say "Jesus," it will lead to baptisms in the school's natatorium. This is irrational.
First, we don't know if any student will ever say anything of a religious nature. The law does not require, presume, anticipate or even suggest that students pray or express any type of religious viewpoint; it just protects them if they do.
Second, if a student does express a religious view on an otherwise permissible subject, it's simply one student's opinion. It has no endorsement from the school. The required disclaimers will make that clear. Since it is not government speech, there is no "captive audience" argument to be made; it is simply one student's opinion expressed to others with no imprimatur of the government. Students are free to ignore each other's opinions and often do.
The law does not give religious students special protection, just equal protection; not extra rights, just equal rights; not preferential treatment, just equal treatment; not an advantage, just a level playing field. That's fair.
Kelly Coghlan is a Houston constitutional trial attorney and can be reached through www.KellyCoghlan.com.
No right to hold others captive
By Michael A. Smith
The Galveston Daily News
Published September 9, 2007
In the mythological world created for religious conservatives by people hustling those same for money and votes, Texas House Bill 3678 is an important law.
It's meant to prevent religious students from being dragged off to gulags by federal marshals for such crimes as praying over their cafeteria hotdogs and saying "I love Jesus" in class.
The trouble is, such never happens anywhere except in the mythological world of religious conservatives, and yet the law also applies to those of us living in the real world.
The only question about HB 3678 — which lawmakers say we may refer to as the "Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act" or the "School Children's Religious Liberties Act" and which has about as much to do with those things as the Patriot Act does with patriotism — is: Exactly how bad is it?
Is it just a gratuitous bone for conservative voters, or is it a real threat to the American concept of keeping state-sponsored religion out of public schools?
We think it's the latter.
Proponents say the bill clarifies students' rights under the U.S. Constitution to express personal religious beliefs at school.
In the mythological world of religious conservatives, those rights routinely are trampled upon by roving bands of ACLU lawyers and anti-religious educators.
Pressed for examples, they provided two lawsuits filed in the past few years. Considering there are about 1,100 school districts in Texas, that's hardly an epidemic of litigation.
School officials do occasionally overreact and violate students' religious rights. One of the lawsuits chronicles the fight to protect the right of a third-grader in Katy to express her deeply held religious beliefs. The child, perhaps 8 years old, was prevented from handing out "religious viewpoint gifts" during recess, so her parents sued.
The district overreacted and, it's important to note, a state district court issued a temporary restraining order against it shortly thereafter. Hard to see the need for a new law in that.
What the bill was drafted to do is side-step a 2000 Supreme Court ruling on a school-prayer policy at Santa Fe Independent School District, right here in Galveston County.
In that ruling, the court said Santa Fe couldn't have a policy allowing hand-picked students to read pre-approved religious statements over campus public address systems at the beginning of every school day, every student assembly and every home football game.
The court said the district could have a policy allowing prayers before graduation ceremonies, as long as they were nonsectarian, nonproselytizing and not censored or otherwise controlled by the district.
The new law is supposed to guide school districts in allowing students to deliver short sermons before every sort of school event.
Not just any students, though. Only juniors and seniors picked from among such elites as "student council officers, captains of the football team and other students holding positions of honor as the school district may designate." The rest of you may remain seated and keep silent.
What the Supreme Court understood in 2000, but our lawmakers still don't get, is the other half of the expression exchange. It's not just a matter of who gets to speak but who is compelled to sit there, captive in the classroom or auditorium or stadium, and listen.
The court rejected Santa Fe's football-prayer policy in part because of frequency. The justices thought that having to listen to a classmate preach once in a high-school career was a reasonable burden; having to do so over and over again was not.
If this law stands, we suggest there ought to be another. Call it the School Children's Plain-Old-American Liberties Act. The law would clarify students' rights to hiss, catcall, boo, hoot, object or disagree via recitation of scripture or to just get up and walk out any time they'd rather not sit quietly captive through a classmate's expression of a religious viewpoint.
HISD faces Catch-22 on religious viewpoints
With a federal ban still in effect, district must find a way to follow new state law
By JENNIFER RADCLIFFE
Sept. 27, 2007
Even 37 years later, Audrey Guild can still hear the voices of girls taunting her as she walked to Hartman Junior High School.
They were singing Jesus Loves Me to her because her family had sued the Houston school district for allowing Bible verses to be read over school intercoms.
"We got all kinds of hazing — eggs thrown at our house," Guild, now 50, said. "It was hard as a kid, but it was definitely worth standing up for something like that."
The Guilds, deeply involved in the Unitarian Church, prevailed. A federal judge ruled in 1970 that the Houston Independent School District was violating a U.S. Supreme Court ruling by permitting or requiring students to read the Bible or say prayers as part of any school practice.
Fast-forward nearly four decades: A new state law — House Bill 3678, or the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act — requires all Texas school districts to adopt policies creating limited public forums for student speakers at certain school events.
Many are watching to see how HISD, the state's largest school district, manages to juggle its long-standing federal court order with the new state law, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land.
The task of reconciling the two is so daunting that HISD has asked the Texas attorney general for guidance.
"The district obviously wants to comply with the law and obviously wants to meet its responsibilities to all its citizens," said David Thompson, an attorney who represents HISD.
It could take up to six months for the attorney general to issue an opinion.
Meanwhile, complying with the law has been tricky for all of Texas' 1,040 school districts, even those that don't face HISD's extra hurdle.
Dozens have adopted a model policy developed by the Legislature to ensure compliance with the state law. Critics fear, however, that adopting that policy puts school districts at risk of violating the First Amendment.
"It's a true Catch-22," said Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards. "They've been put clearly in this position of being told that if you operate according to this state-adopted law, you face some risks of breaking federal law."
Generally, federal rulings over the past several decades validate students' rights to pray alone and in groups at school. The courts, however, routinely frown on activities that can be considered school-sponsored prayer, officials said.
While the intent of this law is to protect students' rights, critics say the speech resulting from it could appear to be school-sponsored prayer. Students don't have the option, for instance, of walking out of class during morning announcements, they say.
While no one is certain that district policies created to comply with the new law will be deemed unconstitutional, experts expect the law to trigger additional lawsuits.
"The bill, despite the author and sponsor's intent, has created a lot more confusion and opened the door to a lot more legal challenges and lawsuits," said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network. "I'm concerned that dollars will flow from the classroom into the courtroom because of this law."
Under the new law, schools are required to create limited public forums at events where students speak publicly. Such forums are considered limited because a district can restrict how long a student speaks and on what topic, but viewpoints are left to the students.
The state's model policy says schools can include limited public forums for students at athletic events, morning announcements and any other school activities. Students will be allowed to speak if they hold honorary positions, such as student council officer, captain of the football team or any other position the district identifies.
Students from this preselected group could, for instance, be invited to offer a morning reflection over the intercom. They could, theoretically, opt to say a prayer or read a Bible verse during that time, Baskin said.
"Depending on how students decide to use their opportunity to speak, that starts to look so much like those cases from the 1960s and '70s," she said.
But others say the new law is needed to protect students from schools that unintentionally suppress religious expression. Some campuses have, for example, prohibited students from saying "God" or "Merry Christmas" at school.
"Students' rights were being violated and lawsuits were costing schools hundreds of thousands in legal fees. Schools needed direction," said Houston lawyer Kelly Coghlan, who specializes in faith-based issues and helped write the law. "I don't know how anybody can be against this. I really don't."
If HISD adopts the model policy, he said, "They will then have the attorney general on their side to defend their following the state law."
Miller said she's eager to see the attorney general's opinion, and believes that a lot of lawyers on both sides of the issue feel the same way.
"It's likely to be telling for other schools," she said.
Audrey Guild, who opposes the new law, will be among those watching. "It's strange to me that it's still an issue," she said. "I'm glad there's some other people really on the front lines, fighting."
Districts select religious viewpoints policy, gird for possible court fights
The Religious Viewpoints Anti-discrimination Act, a new state law aimed at protecting the rights of students to express their religious views, has put districts in a position of having to balance their public charges with an obligation to stay neutral on matters of faith.
Many districts have gone with a Texas Association of School Boards policy that better fits their needs.
Midland ISD attorney Ellen House said the district went with the TASB policy because the state version could get districts sued under federal law. But there's a possibility of legal action from either side.
"I think there's a pretty high probability of legal action, but I have no idea what form it will take or who will be involved," she said.
No legal action has taken place yet, but it is anticipated. There will be disclaimers saying these are the students' views and not the district's.
"I don't think it will have a significant impact on day-to-day operations of the schools," House said.
The policy provided in the state statute was much more specific than the law itself, so it wasn't tailored to the needs and practices of districts statewide, House said.
'I'm not aware of any issues that have come up where students or parents have expressed concern about their ability to express their religious viewpoints," she said.
Meanwhile, bill authors Reps. Charlie Howard and Warren Chisum have posted a letter on the Texas Education Agency Web site saying districts will be out of compliance with the state law if they choose an alternative.
"If a school district adopts and follows the Religious Viewpoints Anti-discrimination Act's model policy, the district is deemed to be in compliance with RVAA. This is the only way a district can have this assurance -- and that's one less worry for the district," the letter said.
"Furthermore, since the (Texas) attorney general defends legislation and the model policy is a part of this legislation, adoption of the model policy should assure a district the assistance of the attorney general in the event of a facial challenge to the district's adopted model policy."
While a district is free to have an outside group or person draft a different policy, that district will have no assurance it is in compliance with RVAA and will be on its own to defend that policy against legal challenges to its lawyer's experimentations," the letter states.
The policy MISD trustees adopted provides a limited public forum where students can introduce secondary dramatic/artistic productions, awards ceremonies and extracurricular banquets, according to district policy.
House said events may be added if the administration deems it appropriate.
The superintendent, in consultation with campus principals, can identify additional school events during the year at which students can use the forum. There also are several rules students have to follow, including staying on the subject and not engaging in speech that could be considered obscene, the policy said.
"It's intended to be neutral criteria. If, for example, you have three choir concerts in a semester and 10 volunteers," names could be put in a hat and picked at random, House said. If there are more volunteers than events, those not chosen could be called on the next semester.
"The policy calls for students to volunteer for these activities. The schools will make an announcement that this activity is available and the kids have to meet certain criteria," she said.
The student has to be involved in the event at which they are volunteering to speak and cannot be involved in a disciplinary situation, House said.
TASB's policy avoids offering the limited public forum at events such as football games, which is prohibited by the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision came from a case involving a Santa Fe ISD student who delivered a prayer over the loudspeaker at a game.
The question, said TASB Director of Legal Services Joy Baskin, is: "When a student speaks over the mic, is those students speaking for themselves, just sharing their own thoughts, in which case they have important First Amendment protections, or are they speaking on behalf of the school district? If they are, the First Amendment cuts the other direction."
Baskin said the new arrangement could be fine -- or not.
"This may go relatively smoothly on the one hand, but on the other hand, school officials do feel like they are put in the position of being at least potentially having to manage distractions from the educational program," Baskin added.
"They (school districts) have two precious resources -- time and money. Some are going to feel like the controversy eats up time and some are going to feel risk of litigation in this area risks their (monetary) situation."
Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller said the law violates the mantra of "local control." Her organization is a grassroots public policy group that promotes public education, religious freedom and individual liberties.
"We at the Texas Freedom Network fear money drained from classrooms and flowing into the courtroom as a result of this law," Miller said.
Texas ‘Religious Viewpoints' Law Draws Grumbles
By Andrew Trotter
Published in Print: October 3, 2007
A new Texas law intended to protect the rights of students to religious expression when they speak at school events such as football games and morning announcements has sent hundreds of districts scrambling to adopt customized policies—and left some nervous about the prospect of lawsuits.
The policies are being adopted under the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, or RVAA, approved resoundingly by the legislature in April and intended to clarify how Texas school districts apply the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and to give compliant districts a shield against lawsuits.
Although districts rushed to adopt the policies before the 2007-08 school year began, many school officials were miffed by what they saw as a heavy-handed effort by the state to dictate local policy, and were skeptical about whether religious intolerance in school was a significant problem to begin with.
"There are already a lot of opportunities for students to express their religions, whether it's prayer around the flagpole, prayer with friends around lunch," said Richard M. Abernathy, a lawyer whose firm represents about 25 districts, including the 33,000-student Plano school system.
The law generated fierce debate and publicity before and after its enactment.
In legislative hearings, several parents testified that their children had been prohibited from wishing soldiers "Merry Christmas" at school, or from passing out pencils printed with the slogan "Jesus is the Reason for the Season."
"Texans take their religion very seriously," said one participant in the debate, Kathy Miller, the president of the Texas Freedom Network. Her Austin-based nonprofit citizens' group, which says it has a membership of 28,000, campaigned unsuccessfully against the law.
‘Limited Public Forum'
The new law, signed by Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, in June, states that to assure that a district will not discriminate against students' expression of religious viewpoints, the district "shall establish a limited public forum for student speakers at school events in which students are to publicly speak."
A limited public forum, according to federal court rulings, is a venue—for example, an assembly podium, school announcement period, or even an Internet discussion board—that the state has made available to the public for expressive activity. In the public school context, when a student is speaking in a limited public forum, teachers or school officials generally cannot interfere unless the student makes statements that are obscene, defamatory, or disruptive.
But, in an unusual move, the Texas law also includes as part of its text a complete model policy for school districts. That policy, which the law's prime backers urged school boards to adopt verbatim, says that school football games, morning announcements, and graduation ceremonies are among the events that will be considered limited public forums.
The policy also says that districts should publish disclaimers at graduation ceremonies and other events so they would not appear to endorse students' expression of religious views. And it states that schools should use neutral selection methods to designate student speakers, without reference to religious beliefs.
Elements of the policy rankled some district officials, in part because the recommended policy was too specific about spelling out what would be considered a limited public forum.
But the bill's main authors, Reps. Charlie Howard and Warren Chisum, both Republicans, sent a letter to all the state's school boards saying that by adopting the policy, a district would be insulated from court challenges based on the law, which would be defended by the Texas attorney general. The Texas Education Agency also issued a letter to school boards endorsing the model policy.
The representatives' letter also suggested that an alternative policy developed by the Texas Association of School Boards, or TASB, "significantly deviates" from the model policy and would "put districts in violation of RVAA," referring to the law.
Officials of the school boards' group, however, bristled at the suggestion that local officials were compelled to follow the prescriptive state guidelines.
"The entire purpose of offering an alternative was to demonstrate to school districts how they could choose, either by using the TASB policy or creating their own, that they had an opportunity to make their own changes," said Joy Baskin, the director of legal services for the Texas school boards' group, based in Austin.
The association, which provides its policy service to approximately 1,000 Texas school districts, has not finished collecting information about how various districts have chosen to comply with the law. But Ms. Baskin said it appears that a majority of districts adopted customized policies that drew both on the one in the law and on the TASB alternative, though hundreds of districts have adopted the state model, she said.
Not all districts rushed to have a policy in place before the start of school.
William C. Bednar, an Austin lawyer, said last week that the four districts that he represents have not yet approved policies. "We're trying to find a policy course for the districts that we represent that would be in substantial compliance" with the law and at the same time avoid legal risks, he said.
Acting too hastily, Mr. Bednar said, would also expose the districts to legal risks. "Would you rather be sued in state court for not complying with the act than in federal court for violating the First Amendment?" Mr. Bednar said. "It's an unfortunate and unattractive choice of options."
Mr. Abernathy, who represents the Plano school district, said that district looked at the legislature's model policy and cut elements that didn't apply. Football games, for instance, do not typically have student introductions in Plano, and public announcements are typically done by students only at the elementary level.
Rather than add football games and other events as an occasion for limited public forums, the Plano school board passed a policy stating that if a school wants to have student introductions, the principal must make a request to the district. The legal protection that the law and policy provide remains to be seen, Mr. Abernathy said. He noted that, in a limited public forum, students may express ideas on any topic—not just on religion—that are arguably related to the occasion, as long as they are not defamatory or obscene.
And many observers said they believe that lawsuits may soon appear testing districts' application of the new law. "It's pretty universal that [districts] see there will be litigation," Dennis Eichelbaum, an Auston-based lawyer said. "One of the nicknames for the bill is that it's the ‘Lawyers' Retirement Fund Act.' "
Varied Guidelines on Students' Public Speech
Texas State Legislature
Student Speakers at Nongraduation Events
The school district hereby creates a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events at which a student is to publicly speak. For each speaker, the district shall set a maximum time limit reasonable and appropriate to the occasion. Student speakers shall introduce:
(1) football games;
(2) any other athletic events designated by the district;
(3) opening announcements and greetings for the school day; and
(4) any additional events designated by the district, which may include, without limitation, assemblies and pep rallies.
Texas Association of School Boards
Student speakers shall be given a limited public forum to introduce:
1. [List events that student speakers may introduce. Specify events by campus level, e.g., "high school football games."]
Plano School District
Notwithstanding any other provision of this policy, student speakers shall be given a limited public forum to introduce:
1. daily announcements at campuses where there is a public address system; and
2. any additional events designated by the district.
SOURCE: Education Week
State policy interpreted many ways
Schools struggle to adopt religion law amid division
By Denise Malan
Corpus Christi Caller-Times
September 25, 2007
CORPUS CHRISTI — The school day begins with a prayer. The student council president, a Christian, briefly praises God before reading the day's announcements over the loud speaker
An atheist listens silently each day to the prayer from his homeroom desk. He's too shy to speak up, but his parents aren't. They hire a lawyer and sue the school district on First Amendment grounds.
School leaders around the state are imagining such scenarios under the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, which the Legislature approved last spring. The law requires school districts to open a limited public forum for student speakers to read the morning announcements and introduce various events. A limited public forum sets parameters on the topic and duration students can speak.
The law's supporters say it protects districts from lawsuits if they follow a model policy approved by the Legislature.
The model policy allows student council officers and football team captains, along with other students in positions of honor, to speak at morning announcements and football games, or other events a district chooses. Students must speak on the subject at hand and can't use obscene or vulgar language. The law explicitly states that school districts aren't to discriminate against students for religious viewpoints on permissible topics.
The act puts Supreme Court decisions into law and protects schoolchildren from discrimination, its authors and supporters say. Critics say the act was unnecessary and invites lawsuits from people of minority viewpoints who feel they aren't allowed to speak, or people of majority beliefs who don't want to listen to the minorities.
Amid this debate, school districts statewide are struggling to implement guidelines. What is the most neutral way to choose student speakers? At what events should they be allowed to speak? What about students who stray off topic? How long will it take for a teenager to test the obscenity limit?
Legislators and attorneys have sent conflicting instructions to superintendents. The Legislature, Texas Association of School Boards and attorneys drafted several model policies for local school boards to consider. Each side has claimed districts will face lawsuits if they adopt another version of the policy.
"I've never seen as much direct communication from legislators saying such conflicting information," said Superintendent Scott Elliff of the Corpus Christi Independent School District. "We will be dealing with various interpretations of this throughout the year."
Many school officials say the law puts them in a Catch 22: adopt a policy and open their districts to lawsuits or do nothing and violate state law.
"Someone will challenge it no matter what model of the policy you adopt," said Crawford Helms, superintendent of the West Oso Independent School District. "It's a matter of wait and see."
Although school boards were to implement policies by Sept. 1, some, such as Flour Bluff Independent School District, have said they need more time to study the issue. Others, such as CCISD, have adopted policies but have yet to put them into practice.
The Tuloso-Midway school board adopted the state's model policy with minor modifications such as removing football captains from the list of speakers.
"We don't see any problem in the law," Superintendent Cornelio Gonzalez said. "We believe the law protects the rights of students. It only makes it more specific and obvious."
The bill came about because of isolated instances of religious discrimination reported in Texas schools, according to Gov. Rick Perry's office. One school prohibited students from wishing troops overseas a Merry Christmas. At another school, a first-grader was reprimanded for saying "Jesus" when asked what Easter brings to mind.
"We don't need to shield our children from religious expression and allow them to only be exposed to the religion of secularism in our schools," Perry said in an April news release supporting the bill.
Critics, including the nonprofit Texas Freedom Network, say First Amendment training for teachers and administrators is a better solution.
"The folks promoting the bill during the legislative session made lots of claims about how this would clarify things and it would eliminate lawsuits," said Kathy Miller, Texas Freedom Network president. "In fact, we're seeing exactly the opposite."
Some local districts, including Corpus Christi, previously used a policy under which students can pray voluntarily at any time during the school day, but the district infringes upon constitutional religious freedoms if it affirmatively sponsors prayer. Most school districts probably did not have policies before the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.
The law, some opponents say, is an end run around a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning prayers over the public address systems at football games. The court came to that decision in part because one student was elected to give the invocation all season, effectively silencing minority viewpoints.
In issuing its own model policy, the Texas Association of School Boards took issue with the state's suggestion of the student council president and football captain as speakers. Those positions, elected by a majority, by definition would not allow minority viewpoints, the association argued.
Houston lawyer Kelly Coghlan, who drafted the law, says in letters to school districts that districts are complicating the law and putting themselves in danger of lawsuits if they stray from the state's model policy. The policy was field-tested in schools for as many as six years and no students abused or exploited speaking opportunities or sued those districts, according to Coghlan.
All that debate leaves school districts -- and their attorneys -- trying to find a middle ground. The Corpus Christi ISD board approved a placeholder policy before the Sept. 1 deadline allowing Elliff to consult with principals before choosing which students speak at which events. The superintendent worries about finding a neutral way to choose speakers and the possibility that a student's speech could be offensive.
"What students say still can't be disruptive, lewd, obscene, profane," Elliff said. "On the other hand, the standard is pretty high for that."
In West Oso, the board adopted a policy last month and revised it Monday. It closely follows the state model guidelines. The board expanded the guidelines to include student speakers during student orientation and award banquets, rather than just during football games and announcements as envisioned in the state policy. The district also added athletic team captains and officers of campus student organizations to the state's model, but excluded the elementary school from the policy.
Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act
The state model policy is included in the law and school districts are required to adopt substantially identical policies.
Limited public forum
District sets a maximum time limit for speakers to introduce each event, including football games, morning announcements and other events designated by the district. Student speech must be related to the purpose of the event. Students cannot be discriminated against for religious viewpoints on otherwise permissible subjects. No lewd or obscene language allowed.
Forum is limited to students in the highest two grade levels who hold a position of honor, such as student council officers, class officers of the highest grade level, football team captains and other positions of honor designated by the district. Eligible students who want to volunteer can notify the student council or other body. Names are drawn, and students are matched to events chronologically.
Limited public forum for graduating students with one of the following positions: student council officers, graduating class officers, top three academically ranked graduates or other student leaders. Topic must be related to graduating. Provide written disclaimer in graduation programs.
Written and/or oral statement at every event stating the views are the students' and not the school district's. Required for as long as needed to dispel confusion over the district's nonsponsorship of student speech.
All assignments must be judged by academic standards and not on any religious content.
Organizing religious groups and activities
Students may organize prayer groups or other religious activities before, during and after school following the same rules as nonreligious groups.
Source: Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act
Contact Denise Malan at 886-4334 or at email@example.com
Let's stop playing politics with faith in Texas schools
New law leaves campuses open to federal lawsuits
By KATHY MILLER
Oct. 12, 2007
No one should be surprised that the Houston Independent School District finds itself stuck between two opposing mandates — a new state law on religious expression in public schools and the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom. I and other supporters of religious freedom predicted this would happen when the Texas Legislature took up the deceptively named "Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act" last spring.
The new law's supporters say it will protect students who, for example, write about their faith in homework, distribute religious items to other students and even wish our troops overseas "Merry Christmas." Yet courts have consistently reined in the few overzealous school officials who have improperly restricted such activities.
After all, the First Amendment clearly protects the right to religious expression for all, including students. But what binds our diverse nation together is the principle that the government should never be used to favor one faith over all others. The First Amendment protects that principle. This new law weakens it.
The law mandates that schools turn public events, such as morning announcements and football games, into so-called "limited public forums." Student speakers are then permitted to use those events to promote their own religious beliefs or even attempt to convert their fellow students.
Supporters claim that districts adopting the law's model policy need not worry about state lawsuits. But legal scholars say schools would leave themselves open to federal lawsuits for potentially violating the religious freedom of students and their families. In fact, a federal court 37 years ago found that HISD was violating that freedom. Now this new state law mandates that the district repeat its mistake.
The principle at stake is not hard to understand. One member of Houston's legislative delegation has already demonstrated it.
During the last legislative session, Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston walked off the Senate floor when a Muslim imam opened the day with a prayer. A Christian, Patrick claimed his presence would have implied an endorsement of religious beliefs he does not share.
Students, on the other hand, cannot leave a school function at which their presence is required. If a speaker uses a school event to evangelize, the school will not be a neutral actor. It will be forcing all students to participate in a function that promotes religious views they and their families may not share.
Consider some scenarios. When a Wiccan student council president closes morning announcements each day with a prayer to the Mother Goddess, will Christian families object? What happens when the captain of the football team decides to use his pep rally speech to mock the faith of opposing players and, potentially, the faith of some students in his own school? Under this law, the hands of school officials are tied.
You can almost see the attorneys lining up. In fact, the attorneys who crafted the new law make a living suing school districts over these kinds of issues. They even opposed a measure that would have barred students from using the law to discriminate against other students.
"Really and truly, we're just trying to have school, and I think this is a complicating factor," a weary school official in Abilene told a newspaper reporter recently. Indeed.
This is a lesson in what happens when elected officials play politics with the faith of our children. Lawmakers should have used some common sense. They could have simply provided schools with training on how the First Amendment protects religious freedom and then held them accountable. But they decided local schools needed another state mandate instead. Now school officials — and local taxpayers — are forced to deal with the consequences.
Miller is president of the Texas Freedom Network. TFN is a grass roots, public policy organization that promotes public education, religious freedom and individual liberties (TFN@tfn.org ).
Public Schools Under Fire
Religious Right Pressure Groups Target Public School Children For Conversion Using An Array Of New Tactics
by Rob Boston
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
In mid-August, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed something called the "Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act" into law. Although the new law has an innocuous-sounding title, it's really a ticking time-bomb, opponents say.
The law requires every public school in the state to adopt a policy guaranteeing students' right to religious expression. It mandates that schools create "limited public forums" for religious and other types of speech. A student could, for example, read the morning announcements over a loudspeaker and then lapse into a prayer or mini-sermon.
Many people think the law is yet another effort to get around the Supreme Court's rulings on separation of church and state in public schools – and they're expecting a torrent of litigation to result.
"This law is fundamentally at odds with the principle of religious freedom," said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based group that opposes the machinations of the Religious Right. "It will force public school students to participate in public events that promote religious views – through prayer or even proselytizing – that they and their families may not share or may even find deeply offensive. So rather than protecting religious freedom, this law represents a grave threat to it.
"Rather than providing schools with training and appropriate guidelines for protecting First Amendment freedoms," Miller told Church & State, "legislators decided to play politics with our children's faith. So now they have recklessly put local schools and their taxpayers at risk of expensive lawsuits."
The law is of dubious constitutionality, and some school officials in the state are exasperated. Charles Perkins, Abilene Independent School District's assistant superintendent, told the Abilene Reporter-News, "I really do feel like the state law has been very confusing. It's opened some doors that no one thought to go through."
Perkins added, "Really and truly, we're just trying to have school, and I think this is a complicating factor."
The Texas law, which was drafted and promoted by a Religious Right group called the Liberty Legal Institute, is yet another salvo in a long-running battle in America over the proper place of religion in public schools.
The Supreme Court ruled 45 years ago that public schools may not sponsor prayer, Bible reading and other forms of religious worship. Rulings since then have generally extended that principle, while protecting truly voluntary religious activity in the schools.
But some people have never made their peace with the school prayer rulings. After the decisions were handed down in 1962 and '63, numerous constitutional amendments were introduced in Congress to "restore" prayer to schools. They have been a permanent fixture on the political scene since then, although none has passed.
Frustrated, Religious Right advocates are adopting new strategies to bring state-sanctioned fundamentalist outreach into the schools. The Texas law, critics say, is merely a new twist on an old fight.
It's not the only one. As another school year got under way last month, public schools around the nation found themselves under siege by groups obsessed with using the schools as instruments of evangelism.
The Texas law reflects the Religious Right's latest ploy: drafting students as evangelists to preach to a captive audience of their peers. The groups hope that the courts will consider the prayers and sermons offered during the "limited public forum" as a form of free speech that is, technically, not sponsored by the school.
One of the drafters of the law, a Houston attorney named Kelly J. Coghlan, urges students to lead their peers in prayer before the beginning of the school day as well as before football games, graduation ceremonies and other school events.
"For many years, students have been reluctant to stand up and express their faith in public schools for fear of being disciplined," Coghlan writes on his Web site. "Students should no longer have such fear. Schools are not religion-free zones; school officials are not prayer police; and students of faith are not enemies of the state. The new law makes this clear."
Coghlan fails to point out that his gambit is legally suspect. After the high court's school prayer rulings were handed down, some school districts tried to save school prayer by shifting the practice from school officials to student volunteers. One New Jersey school district even convened a daily five-minute assembly during which a student read the daily chaplain's prayer from the Congressional Record. Courts saw through these ruses and struck them down.
Nevertheless, some students seem eager to take matters into their own hands. Graduation ceremonies are sometimes marked by speakers who veer off into fundamentalist tangents. ABC News reported that in Duval County, Fla., earlier this year, valedictorian Shannon Spaulding of Wolfson High School "quoted the Bible and spoke about Jesus Christ, suggesting that those who didn't believe would go to hell."
Spaulding told the crowd, "I want to tell you that Jesus Christ can give you eternal life in heaven. If we die with that sin on our souls, we will immediately be pulled down to hell to pay the eternal price for our sins ourselves."
Some attendees were predictably displeased with the sermon, and school officials apologized.
In Monument, Colo., a disgruntled valedictorian who misled school officials about the content of her speech is going to court. Erica Corder was one of several speakers during graduation ceremonies at Lewis-Palmer High School in May 2006. Students were required to clear their speeches with the principal first. Corder did so, but then added sermonizing later.
"We are all capable of standing firm and expressing our own beliefs, which is why I need to tell you about someone who loves you more than you could ever imagine," Corder said. "He died for you on a cross over 2,000 years ago, yet was resurrected and is living today in heaven. His name is Jesus Christ. If you don't already know him personally, I encourage you to find out more about the sacrifice he made for you so that you now have the opportunity to live in eternity with him."
School officials threatened to withhold Corder's diploma until she apologized. She is now in court, arguing that school officials violated her rights.
Other issues public schools face include:
The courtroom defeat of "intelligent design" (ID) in Dover, Pa., two years ago left creationists reeling – but not for long. To no one's surprise, groups that promote elevating theology over science have re-tooled for the umpteenth time and are again shopping their wares to the public schools.
The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that promotes ID, has just published Explore Evolution, a textbook it is promoting to biology teachers nationwide. Despite its title, the book does not so much explore evolution as try to debunk it, relying, critics say, on the same old pseudo-scientific arguments that are stock in trade among the creationists.
Opponents of evolution have tried these tactics before. After the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law mandating "balanced treatment" between evolution and creationism, creationists began advocating the instruction of "evidence against evolution." This was simply young-Earth creationism with a new name.
The Discovery Institute's tactics are more sophisticated. The group does not endorse young-Earth creationism, for example. But critics say the organization's new book is yet another attempt to slip ID, a religiously grounded concept, into the schools.
"Explore Evolution is a real piece of work," Joshua Rosenau, public information project director for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), told Church & State. "Everything from the author list to the content reveals the book's deep links with earlier generations of creationism, however hard they try to obscure that heritage."
The NCSE, based in Oakland, Calif., defends the teaching of evolution in public schools, and Rosenau recently reviewed Explore Evolution for the group. He added, "Like previous creationist works, it attacks evolution with misrepresentations and misunderstandings, but where previous generations of textbooks claimed this as evidence of divine intervention, Explore Evolution leaves that leap to students and teachers. Needless to say, we have yet to identify any criticisms of evolution in the book which do not have a long history in the creationist literature."
Advocates of sound science education are also watching Texas warily. Gov. Perry has appointed Don McLeroy, a dentist from Bryan, as head of the State Board of Education. McLeroy, who was first elected to the board in 1998, has regularly voted to water down instruction about evolution.
The Texas Freedom Network noted that McLeroy promoted ID during a 2005 speech delivered to his fundamentalist church. According to a report on the blog of The Texas Observer, McLeroy told the congregation that intelligent design is a "big tent" that represents religious conservatives' best shot at undermining evolution.
"Why is Intelligent Design the big tent?" asked McLeroy. "Because we're all lined up against the fact that naturalism, that nature is all there is. Whether you're a progressive creationist, recent creationist, young Earth, old Earth, it's all in the tent of Intelligent Design."
Pointing out that as chairman, McLeroy will oversee the first overhaul of Texas' science curriculum standards since 2003, the Observer remarked, "Get ready to redo the Scopes Trial, folks."
Teaching ‘About' The Bible
Across the country, public schools are being pressured to adopt classes that teach "about" the Bible. Three states – Texas, Georgia and South Carolina – have adopted legislation authorizing such classes. Other states are considering similar laws.
The concept sounds non-controversial on its face. The Supreme Court, in fact, has stated that objective classes about religion do not violate the First Amendment.
The problem comes with implementation. There is a dearth of material available, and what is out there tends to skew toward conservative, evangelical interpretations of the Bible.
A curriculum created by the Bible Literacy Project (BLP), for example, is being heavily promoted as a middle-of-the-road approach that is appropriate for use in public schools. But Americans United has pointed out that the BLP's textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, hews to a generally evangelical interpretation, contains errors and has recently undergone several changes at the behest of fundamentalist critics. Other analysts have scored the book for failing to include serious biblical scholarship.
The BLP is run by a wealthy Religious Right activist named Charles Stetson, a graduate of Charles W. Colson's Wilberforce Centurion training program. Colson, who embraced evangelical Christianity while serving time in prison for Watergate-era offenses, has become increasingly strident and theocratic in his outlook.
Unfortunately, the main alternative to the BLP's curriculum is even worse. Curriculum materials produced by the North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS) overtly reflect fundamentalist views. Portions of the group's curriculum have already been declared unconstitutional.
Nevertheless, education officials nationwide are being pressured to introduce Bible classes. Earlier this year, Americans United wrote to officials with the South Carolina Department of Education, which, under a new state law, has been charged with adopting academic standards and appropriate instructional materials for two optional courses on the Bible: History and Literature of the Old Testament and History and Literature of the New Testament.
In a letter to State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and other officials, Americans United advised South Carolina educators to follow specific steps to assure that the classes remain focused on objective education, not religious indoctrination. To survive a legal challenge, the courses must present the Bible in a secular, objective and academic manner, AU asserted. AU also said the classes must expose students to critical perspectives on the Bible and a diversity of biblical interpretations; refrain from portraying the Bible as literal, religious truth; and not present a particular sectarian point of view. Several court cases are cited to back up these assertions.
A district in Dorchester County is apparently the first to approve a Bible class under the new law. The instructor, Laura Knotts, has promised to focus on the Bible's influence on culture, art and literature, but some parents in the community charge that Knotts lacks the academic qualifications to teach the class. Knotts has said she will use the BLP's textbook but add in material from the National Council.
Some members of the community are concerned. On an Internet bulletin board that is used by some church-state activists in the area, one woman charged that at a candidates' forum earlier this year, some candidates who now sit on the board advocated teaching creationism alongside of or in place of evolution.
"The rush, the secrecy, and the prior comments give me the feeling an agenda is being pushed instead of real interest in our children's education," she wrote. "Is that what we should expect for the future?"
On Sept. 7, AU attorneys wrote to officials at the Dorchester schools, urging them to drop the class as it is currently constituted. The lawyers pointed out that use of the NCBCPS's materials is especially problematic, as the group's mission is clearly evangelistic.
Based on what has happened elsewhere, critics of these classes have good cause to be concerned. In Texas, for example, courses that purport to teach "about" the Bible have been popular in several districts. But a study last year by the Texas Freedom Network found that most of the courses came up short.
Mark Chancey, a biblical scholar at Southern Methodist University who authored the study, found that many "teach about the Bible" courses fail to meet minimal academic standards and that many teachers are not qualified.
Chancey found that many districts present the Protestant version of the Bible as true and make other sectarian assumptions. The Bible, he said, is often presented as literal truth and the stories in it as factual. Judaism is portrayed with a Christian bias, sometimes as a faith that was "completed" by Christianity. Other courses have been used to prop up creationism and bogus "Christian nation" historical views.
Many districts in Texas rely on the NCBCPS's flawed curriculum. That may soon change. In May, eight parents challenged the use of the National Council's material in Odessa. The Moreno v. Ector County Independent School District lawsuit alleges that the National Council's curriculum is designed to promote fundamentalist Christianity, not objective instruction about religion.
Religion-Themed Charter/Public Schools
Recently, disputes erupted in New York and Florida over publicly funded schools that have been accused of having a religious focus.
In Florida, controversy erupted over a decision to open Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood. Charter schools are publicly funded but are free of some of the regulations imposed on other public schools. They are often run by community groups, non-profits or business leaders. Despite the looser regulations, charters must still abide by constitutional requirements.
The spat in New York centers on the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, part of a group of small public schools in the city that focuses on foreign languages. Critics allege the school, which offers an Arabic language course, will promote fundamentalist Islam, but they have provided no evidence to back up the claim.
Neither the New York nor the Florida cases involved a school with a fundamentalist Christian approach, but Religious Right groups are certain to adopt the tactic if it survives constitutional scrutiny.
Americans United is monitoring both situations.
On Aug. 7, AU lawyers sent a letter to officials with the Broward County Public Schools, expressing concern about Ben Gamla's curriculum. The school's backers have proposed using a Hebrew-language textbook that contains religious content. AU urged officials to withdraw the book.
"Federal courts across the country have also made clear that the prohibition against public-school religious instruction extends to the use of teaching materials that present the Bible or religious doctrine as truth, or that otherwise endorse religious views," AU's letter asserted.
The Associated Press reported last month that officials in Broward County will "create training programs for teachers and board members to ensure the separation of church and state" and that "lesson plans will be submitted monthly for district review."
The situation in New York is murkier, as no proof has been offered that the Khalil Gibran International Academy is teaching religion. It is run in conjunction with the Arab American Family Support Center, an organization the New York City Department of Education refers to as a "secular social service agency." Its backers insist the school will focus on the Arab language, but not Islam. The school's Muslim principal was recently replaced with a Jewish principal.
"Religion plays absolutely no part in the school," an education official in New York City vowed. "This is a public school; it wouldn't play a part in any of our schools."
In Washington, D.C., Americans United has also been responding to complaints of inappropriate religious activity at a public charter school. Parents have complained that the headmaster of Washington Latin School, T. Robinson Ahlstrom, leads students in prayer during daily assemblies.
The school is currently housed at Christ Church, and the meetings are held in the sanctuary, which is festooned with religious iconography.
Americans United attorneys have written to Ahlstrom and charter school officials in Washington, telling them to immediately cease the school-sponsored religious activities.
Right on the heels of that controversy, the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., announced it would seek to convert eight inner-city parochial schools into public charters. Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl said the church can no longer afford to keep the schools open and insisted that as charters, the institutions will be secular.
The Washington Post reported that "the schools would still have strong values, but the schools' names would change and specific religious references would be stripped from the curriculum."
Arne Duncan, head of the Chicago public school system, told The Post such conversions are possible. That city, he said, has two charters that spun off from a Catholic school.
"There are some church-state issues," Duncan said. "But if you're really trying to innovate and think outside the box, they are absolutely surmountable."
Attorneys at Americans United will monitor the situation.
Watch the lawsuits start pouring in
State's new religious freedom law is a minefield for schools
by Kathy Miller
Friday, December 21, 2007
As if they weren't busy enough at this time of year, local schools across Texas are struggling through a legal minefield laid by legislators in Austin last spring. A new state mandate creating that minefield should have come with a package warning: "Following this law will probably get you sued."
The mandate comes in HB 3678, which supporters claimed would protect the right of students to express their religious views in public schools. Sadly, the law is a lesson in what happens when elected officials play politics with the religious faith of families and their children.
The law's supporters say the bill will protect students who, for example, write about their faith in homework, distribute religious items to other students, and even wish our troops overseas "Merry Christmas." Yet courts have consistently reined in the few overzealous school officials who have improperly restricted such activities. After all, the First Amendment clearly protects the right to religious expression for all, including students.
Our country is home to people of a great diversity of faiths. What binds us together is the principle that our government should never be used to favor one faith over all others. The First Amendment protects that principle. This new law weakens it. How so?
It mandates that schools turn public events, such as morning announcements and football games, into "limited public forums." Student speakers are then permitted to use those events to promote their own religious beliefs or even attempt to convert their fellow students.
The law provides a single-model policy for schools. Supporters claim that districts adopting this model need not worry about lawsuits. But legal scholars say schools would leave themselves open to federal lawsuits for potentially violating the religious freedom of students and their families.
During the last legislative session, Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston walked off the Senate floor when a Muslim imam opened the day with a prayer. A Christian, Mr. Patrick claimed his presence would have implied an endorsement of religious beliefs he does not share.
Students, on the other hand, can't leave a school function at which their presence is required. If a speaker uses a school event to evangelize, the school will not be a neutral actor. It will be forcing all students to participate in a function that promotes religious views they and their families may not share.
Consider some scenarios. When a Wiccan student council president closes morning announcements each day with a prayer to the Mother Goddess, will Christian families object? What happens when the captain of the football team decides to use his pep rally speech to mock the faith of opposing players – and, potentially, the faith of some students in his own school? Under this law, the hands of school officials are tied.
You can almost see the attorneys lining up. In fact, the attorneys who crafted HB 3678 make a living suing school districts over these kinds of issues. They even opposed a measure that would have barred students from using the law to discriminate against other students.
"Really and truly, we're just trying to have school, and I think this is a complicating factor," a weary school official in Abilene told a newspaper reporter recently. Indeed.
Lawmakers should have used some common sense. They could have simply provided schools with training on how the First Amendment protects religious freedom and then held them accountable. But they decided local schools needed another state mandate instead. Now local taxpayers may have to foot the legal bills.
Kathy Miller is president of the Texas Freedom Network, a grassroots public policy organization that promotes public education, religious freedom and individual liberties. E-mail her at TFN@tfn.org.
Bill promotes school religion at expense of education
Special to The [Edmond, Oklahoma] Sun
March 7, 2008
EDMOND — The Oklahoma House of Representatives Education Committee has just approved House Bill 2211. The bill is expected to pass the full House, and then to go to the Senate. Its authors describe it as promoting freedom of religion in the public schools. In fact, it does the opposite.
HB 2211 is identical to bills widely introduced into state legislatures across the nation, where they have met various fates. Texas’s Legislature passed it, and Texas is experiencing serious problems as a result. Liberty Legal Institute of Plano, Texas, a group of fundamentalist Christian lawyers, drafted the bill and promoted to legislatures, including Oklahoma’s. It was not written by its Oklahoma legislative “authors.”
The bill requires public schools to guarantee students the right to express their religious viewpoints in a public forum, in class, in homework and in other ways without being penalized. If a student’s religious beliefs were in conflict with scientific theory, and the student chose to express those beliefs rather than explain the theory in response to an exam question, the student’s incorrect response would be deemed satisfactory, according to this bill.
The school would be required to reward the student with a good grade, or be considered in violation of the law. Even simple, factual information such as the age of the earth (4.65 billion years) would be subject to the student’s belief, and if the student answered 6,000 years based on his or her religious belief, the school would have to credit it as correct. Science education becomes absurd under such a situation.
If a student chose to take his opportunity to speak to a group of students in a school-sanctioned assembly to tell them they must accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior or go to hell, then that student would have a right to do so, according to this bill. Especially, but not only if the student held a position of honor and authority (class officer, team captain), and was speaking in his or her official capacity, the school has clearly established religion in violation of both the U.S. and Oklahoma constitutions.
The same would be true if the student chose to tell the assembled students that they would not go to hell, that there is no hell and that those who promote belief in hell are liars. What if a Wican student chose to tell the assembled students that the only true God is Nature, or a member of a radical religious sect advocated assassination in order to preserve God’s will? According to this bill, those students would be free, in a forum supported by the school, to do so. Any or all of these scenarios would lead to lawsuits.
The consequence of the bill will be to create havoc and promote discord in the public schools. That’s already happening in Texas, where the bill has been law for several months. Denton, Texas Independent School District, responding to the law, has decreed that no students may ever speak in assembly, to graduation, to the crowd at an athletic event or in other group function. As reported in The Denton Record Chronicle Sept. 1, the superintendent there said if no students are ever allowed to speak, then there will be no discrimination and no basis for lawsuits. Another school superintendent in Texas said, “… we’re just trying to have school, and I think this is a complicating factor” as reported by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization that has spoken out against the bill.
What administrators fear as the law is implemented is a barrage of lawsuits. School administrators in Texas are frightened. They fear lawsuits from students who feel that the school is forcing them to endure religious activity they do not agree with nor want to have imposed on them. They also fear lawsuits from students who claim they have not been properly allowed the forum the law requires. They’ll be damned (or sued) if they do, damned (or sued) if they don’t. Oklahoma will experience the same.
Students already have the constitutional freedom to organize religious groups, to pray or to do whatever religious activity they want at school, so long as they do not impose that on others or use public resources to support their religion. This bill adds nothing in the way of religious freedom. What it will do is create a stew of undesirable litigation relating to an important constitutional issue — separation of church and state.
Both The Oklahoma Academy of Science and Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education have asked for the bill’s defeat. I agree. Don’t we have better things to do with public money, than to give it to lawyers and courts over such matters?
DAVE McNEELY is an Edmond resident.
Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education
LEGISLATIVE: HB 2211 PASSES HOUSE EDUCATION COMMITTEE. HELP DEFEAT THIS VERY BAD BILL!
House Bill 2211, the really bad 'Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act,' identical to a bill passed in Texas last year was passed by the House Ed Committee on Wednesday, 27 February on a strictly partisan vote. The six negative votes were all by Democrats. The bill had a substitute. The principal author was changed from Rep. Mike Reynolds (R) to Sally Kern (R). Recall that Kern had the same bill introduced but numbered as HB 2200. The Chair of the Committee, Tad Jones (R), allowed few persons to speak against the bill, even those who had previously asked permission (this has been typical of the House since Republicans gained control). Given a 'Do Pass' the bill now goes to the House Floor for a vote within two weeks. Committee member Rep. Jeannie McDaniel (D) gave a well organized and eloquent opposition and promises to debate the bill on the House Floor. Accounts of those who attended the session report that Rep. Kern, who carried the bill, had a very discombobulated presentation and did not always tell the truth of what the bill would do.
It is likely that the bill will pass in the Republican dominated House vote, but a large number of no votes will help gather opponents as the bill proceeds to the Senate and, perhaps, to the Governor. Thus, please contact members of the House and express your opposition.
The best chance of killing the bill may be in the Senate Education Committee. Since the Senate is split 50-50 both co-chairs of the committee must vote to advance a bill. Hopefully, the Democratic Co-chair will vote no. However, there is a special deal that allows 'silver bullets.' Up to three bills can advance from each committee even when the co-chairs disagree, if there is a majority yes vote.
We have posted earlier many of the things wrong with this bill; the most important is that parts are clearly unconstitutional and likely to end the State in Federal Court. Parts of the bill allow students t practice their religion, which are currently constitutional and do not need to be included (e.g., meetings during recess at the flag pole for prayers and devotionals, recognition of religious clubs in the same way other extracurricular organizations are allowed, silent prayer, etc.). The most egregious parts, however, are the Trojan horse measures that would allow religion into many aspects of the curriculum, including creationism in science courses, inability of teachers to grade down a student who gives a religious viewpoint in places that is not applicable, etc. The text of HB 22112 may be found on the House of Representatives web site.
The bill in Texas is already causing great consternation among school districts in just how the provisions can be followed without getting into legal trouble. An editorial on 27 August 2007 in the Dallas Morning News ("watch the Lawsuits Come Pouring In") warned of the many legal problems of the bill. Attorneys for Texas school districts are warning that they can render advice only when they have the details of how schools may react to the provisions -- a real nightmare that will also fall upon Oklahoma if the bill passes.
OKLAHOMANS FOR EXCELLENCE IN SCIENCE EDUCATION URGES DEFEAT OF HB 2211, RELIGIOUS VIEWPOINTS ANTIDISCRIMINATION ACT
The true purpose of HB 2211, the disingenuously named "Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act," ALLOWS proselytizing in public schools. Its provisions purportedly aimed at protecting religious freedom are superfluous -- First Amendment Constitutional law already protects legitimate student expressions of religion. HB 2211 includes provisions that aim, unconstitutionally, at using state power to privilege sectarian religious dogma by allowing it to intrude into public education. An affront to freedom of conscience, HB 2211 would force school children to listen to sermons, under the auspices of school administrators. If this bill is passed, Oklahoma will face First Amendment litigation.
HB 2221 is anti-scientific, seeking the introduction of religious creationism in science courses. HB 2211 would damage science education. Students would be allowed to substitute sectarian religious explanations for scientific and historical explanations without correction. Non-scientific religious creationist accounts of natural phenomena could be given as answers on exams without those answers being corrected by science teachers, making a farce out of science education in Oklahoma classrooms, ultimately hindering the economy's high-tech and med-tech sectors, sectors vital to the state's prosperity.
Press Release from Oklahoma Academy of Science concerning HB 2211
The President of the Oklahoma Academy of Science has issued the following statement regarding HB 2211 currently under consideration by the Oklahoma House of Representatives:
"The Oklahoma Academy of Science is seriously concerned about threats to the quality of science education in our public schools. The members demonstrated their concern by adopting a Statement on Science, Religion, and Teaching Evolution at their recent Annual Meeting. HB 2211 is a major threat to the quality of science education and should not be adopted.
A basic understanding by all citizens of what science has learned over decades of observation and experimentation about how the natural world works is crucial for continued prosperity of our nation and our state. Equally important for the future is training in the scientific process. This process, of posing hypotheses, testing the hypotheses and logically evaluating the results, was central to US preeminence in the world. Oklahoma, if it wants to be competitive nationally in science and technology based industry, cannot afford to dilute or hamper the science education of its citizens.
Enactment of HB 2211 will poison education in science. Teachers will be prohibited from guiding students into understanding how the natural world works. They will not be allowed to guide students into scientific analysis of subject matter. For example, in class discussion of natural variation in populations of individuals and selective forces acting on those populations, a student will be allowed to raise ideas derived from creationism. These ideas are non-scientific. They can not be tested and have no place in a science class. Yet, the teacher will be prevented from explaining that such ideas have no scientific support. The bill further requires the teacher to give full credit to non-scientific ideas when they are part of a student's homework assignment or part of an examination.
HB2211 may seem attractive to some individuals because it also supports many other activities of religious groups in the public school setting that are already possible and legal. There is no need to adopt HB 2211 to allow these ongoing activities. Inclusion of the provisions allowing the inclusion of religion in all classes appears to be a means that the drafters of the resolution have used to gain support for the assault on science they are engaged in. The bill has been likened by others to a Trojan Horse, introducing undesired clauses into a palatable, but unnecessary, package.
The Oklahoma Academy of Science believes that "Science and religion can coexist harmoniously if people understand the strengths and limitations of each field." Many of its members have learned to allow religion and science to coexist in their world-views. They assert that "science teachers should not be required to teach ideas, models, and theories that are extra-scientific" as they would be under HB 2211."
Religion and homework
By DAVID AVERILL Editor, Editorial Pages
'Antidiscrimination' act unnecessary and a bad idea
Jenny and Billy are taking a geography test and the question is, "How are mountains formed?"
Jenny writes that mountains are formed over long periods of time by tremendous forces in the Earth. The forces include volcanic activity, erosion and disturbances or uplifts in the Earth's crust.
Billy answers that mountains are created by God's miracles.
Is Jenny's answer correct, or is Billy's? Or will their teacher score both answers correct? Under a bill now awaiting the governor's signature to become law in Oklahoma, that's not at all clear.
House Bill 2633 mandates that school districts "shall treat the voluntary expression by a student of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the district treats the voluntary expression by a student of a secular or other viewpoint ... and may not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject."
It goes on to say in the next section that "students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions."
Those two unwieldy sentences can certainly be read to require that a teacher accept a students' religion-based explanation of a natural occurrence or phenomenon. In other words, Billy's answer under HB 2633 might be as correct as Jenny's.
Another hypothetical: Teacher asks the class, "What is a rainbow?" Jenny answers that a rainbow is a prism effect that occurs from the refraction of sunlight through water in the atmosphere. Billy answers that a rainbow is God's promise never again to wipe out mankind by flood.
Billy's answer jibes with biblical teaching, but is it of any real value in an educational setting outside of Sunday school? Again, Billy's teacher very well might be required to score Billy's answer as correct.
HB 2633 also includes a provision that "Homework and classroom assignments shall be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school district."
What does that mean? The terms "ordinary academic standards" and "legitimate pedagogical concerns" would seem to suggest that teachers could grade schoolwork exclusively on accepted scientific explanations of how things happen. But if that is the case that provision of the bill would appear to be in conflict with the other provisions.
Here's an obvious prediction: Sorting out what HB 2633 says or doesn't say will require lawsuits.
Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, originally introduced the "Religious Viewpoint Antidiscrimination Act" in another bill [HB 2211], which a few days ago appeared to be dead. But Sen. Jim Williamson, R-Tulsa, resurrected it, amending HB 2633 to include Kern's language. The measure passed the Senate 48-0 and the House 70-28. Those margins make the bill almost veto-proof, so it is likely to become law regardless of what Gov. Brad Henry might think about it.
This bill is unneeded. It attempts to fix a problem that doesn't exist. Worse, its muddy and unwieldy language is bound to cause problems for school districts attempting to implement it.
While Kern and Williamson titled the measure the "Religious Viewpoint Antidiscrimination Act," they could have just as aptly called it the "Full Employment for Lawyers Act."
GOVERNOR VETO OF KERN'S RELIGIOUS BILL, HB 2633
Governor Henry's message ( 6 June 2008) on his veto of HB 2633:
This is to advise you that on this date, pursuant to the authority vested in me by Section 11 and 12 of Article VI of the Oklahoma Constitution to approve or object to legislation presented to me, I have VETOED House Bill 2633. Under current state and federal law, Oklahoma public school students are already allowed to express their faith through voluntary prayer and other activities. While well intended, this legislation is vaguely written and may trigger a number of unintended consequences that actually impede rather than enhance such expression. For example, under this legislation, schools could be forced to provide equal time to fringe organizations that masquerade as religions and advocate behaviors, such as drug use or hate speech, that are dangerous or offensive to students and the general public. Additionally, the bill would presumably require school officials to determine what constitutes legitimate religious expression, subjecting them to an explosion of costly and protracted litigation that would have to be defended at taxpayer's expense.
Henry could have waited a day and let this bill die as a pocket veto. It is important that he decided instead to veto it directly, thus sending an important message.
This is a major victory for supporters of separation of church and state and of quality in public education. LARGE numbers of individuals sent messages to legislators and the Governor in opposition to this bill as it worked its way through the process. To those, and to the organizations that fought this silliness, THANK YOU. This proves again that numbers do count and that organized efforts of citizens still work in our democracy.
Texas Citizens for Science Last Updated: 2008 June 23