A Missouri House committee has approved legislation which would strengthen religious freedom protections for students enrolled in public schools. The House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee has
endorsed House Bill 1303, the Student Religious Liberties Act, sponsored by Representative Elijah Haahr of Springfield.
The legislation would prohibit a public school district from discriminating against a student based on that student's religious viewpoint or religious expression. Students would be free to express their religious values on any particular subject in the same manner that a secular viewpoint would be expressed.
"The Student Religious Liberties Act will make it clear that students do not set aside their religious freedoms when they walk through the schoolhouse door," Representative Haahr states. "This legislation reaffirms the fact that it is not government's place to prevent religious expression but to ensure that all student
viewpoints are treated equally."
The Springfield legislator's bill would make clear that students may participate in prayer groups, religious clubs, or other religious gatherings before, during, and after the school day "to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other noncurricular activities and groups" of a nonreligious nature.
School districts would be required to provide student religious groups the same access to school facilities for their gatherings as school administrators provide for other noncurricular groups. Religious clubs would be allowed to announce and advertise their activities to the
same degree that secular clubs are allowed to do so.
The bill would guarantee that students "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." Teachers would be required to evaluate a student's academic work based on its substance and relevance to the curriculum and requirements of the course, with no prejudice for the inclusion of relevant religious content.
Representative Haahr's proposal would also protect the right of students to wear clothing, accessories, and jewelry that contains religious messages or symbols, in
the same manner and to the same extent other types of apparel and accessories are permitted.
School districts would also be required to establish what is known legally as a "limited public forum" at all functions at which students are given an opportunity to speak. School officials would be prohibited from discriminating against the voluntary expression of religious viewpoints in such settings.
The provisions of the bill make clear that school districts retain the authority to maintain order, discipline, and safety in school settings, and that religious expression may not be disruptive of scheduled instructional time or educational activities.
"If there's a 15-minute break between 3rd and 4th period and students want to organize a brief prayer or Bible study, that's something that is permissible," Representative Haahr explains. "But sometimes schools are stopping those things from happening because they believe they are crossing a line. All this does is codify what current case law says into statute."
Representative Haahr's bill amounts to enabling legislation for the Religious Liberty Amendment, approved by Missouri voters in the August 2012 statewide election. That constitutional amendment, developed in large part by the Missouri Family Policy Council, was adopted by Missouri voters by a resounding margin of 83 to 17 percent.
That amendment wrote language into the Missouri Constitution guaranteeing students "the right to free exercise of religious expression without interference."
The Religious Liberty Amendment assured students the right to pray individually or corporately in public school settings so long as such religious expression was not disruptive and abided within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech.
The constitutional amendment also stipulated that "students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work."
As stated by Representative Haahr, his bill does not confer any new rights upon Missouri public school
students, but simply delineates those rights which have been established by federal courts under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
While most public education authorities respect these freedoms, some public school teachers and administrators restrict those freedoms because of a misunderstanding of the application of the First Amendment in school settings. They falsely presume that the constitutional theory of "the separation of church and state" requires that they forbid any form of prayer or religious expression in or out of the the classroom.
We commend Representative Haahr for his excellent leadership on this issue. His bill, House Bill 1303, will be debated on the floor of the Missouri House of Representatives in coming weeks. We encourage you to
contact your own state representative to urge them to vote for this important legislation. You can do so by using this link:Your State Representative