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Bill purports to protect schools when students pray, express faith

11:19 AM, Mar 22, 2012   |    comments
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Brian Wilson, The Tennessean

In the wake of a number of lawsuits over keeping religion out of school, a Tennessee representative is advancing a bill that seeks to protect districts when students pray openly or make other expressions of faith.

The Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act's main sponsor, Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, said he feels the legislation would alleviate school districts' fear of allowing such expressions. His bill is slated for hearings in House and Senate subcommittees next week.

"We live in a society that's hypersensitive to statements of faith, and so I think in many ways, students have been disincentivized to make statements of faith," he said.

The right of students to pray or make other expressions of faith has long been upheld in the courts. But three Middle Tennessee districts ran afoul of federal law in recent years over allowing parents or outside groups to promote religion on campus.

Sumner County Schools allowed teacher-led prayer, Cheatham County allowed prayers at football games, and Wilson County allowed parents to hand out notes to students saying they were the subjects of prayer. All three allowed outside groups to distribute Bibles. All three also lost or settled the lawsuits.

On its website, the ACLU said Holt's bill is neither necessary nor constitutional and would subject students to unwanted proselytizing, prayer and preaching and open districts to violating constitutional guarantees.

The legislation would require school districts to implement a policy to create a "limited public forum" before campus events such as the beginning of a school day or before a football game. Select students would be eligible to speak freely at these forums, including about religion, and the school district would issue a disclaimer before those speeches.

"I think the free expression of religion extends to those who may be in the public institution of education," Holt said. "I do believe in the freedom of religion, but I do not believe in the freedom from religion."

Faith-based answers

Under the bill, school districts also would require teachers to treat a student's faith-based answers to school assignments the same as secular answers. But while the bill allows faith-based answers, those responses must be justified like any other student's.

"This is not a bill that is intended to give special advantages to those who hold a particular faith. This is to protect those who have a particular faith," Holt said.

Holt couldn't cite cases in Tennessee involving that particular type of discrimination against students.

Olivia Brown, a spokeswoman for Metro Nashville Public Schools, says she's unaware of any such problems in that school district.

The Tennessee bill, HB 3616 or SB3632, like ones considered in several states and vetoed in Oklahoma, is nearly a word-for-word copy of the Texas legislation that stirred controversy in that state and beyond after it passed in 2007.

The ACLU chapter said the First Amendment does more than enough to meet students' needs. That's also the stance of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Joe Conn, the group's communication director, said the bill is so broad, it could result in violating the Constitution.

"You don't want to have a captive audience listening to a prayer they don't want to hear," Conn said.

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