The subject of student religious freedom reached a flash point in the Potosi School District in Washington County this past week when two high school students claim they were told that their Bibles were not welcome at school.
15-year old Kiela English was reportedly walking down a hallway at Potosi High School with a friend with their Bibles open. English says they were discussing a passage from Scripture. She says that a teacher then approached them and told them that "this wasn't the place" for a Bible and that they had to put it away, and that "they can't be pushing their religion on people."
The incident prompted a vigorous viral reponse and media coverage after English's mother, Angela English,
posted news of the incident on Facebook. "I was outraged. They weren't pushing religion. They were two friends walking down the hallway. There's so many other things at school [teachers] could be looking for, but they targeted two girls with a Bible."
Students responded to the incident by bringing their Bibles to school en masse the following day. "We asked the children to bring their Bibles and carry them--not to preach or shove religion in anyone's face--but to show they have the right to carry the Bible," said Angela English.
"When I dropped my daughter off at school, there were kids waving their Bibles at us," Angela English observed. "I told my daughter that if anyone gives her
any problems, that she should tell them she wants her mother present."
Kiela's friend, who remains unidentified, states that she has been written up in the past for reading her Bible at school.
Potosi R-3 Superintendent Randy Davis says they are investigating the recent incident. "We have absolutely no problem with students bringing their Bible. We firmly believe in freedom of religion and students practicing their religion and their faith...We would have no concern with that at all."
If the incident occurred as alleged, it would be an oppressive violation of the students' First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. Federal courts have made clear that students do not shed their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion at the schoolhouse door.
The incident would also be a violation of the religious freedom provisions of the Missouri Constitution. Missouri voters approved a religious liberty amendment in August of 2012 that states that public school students have the "right to free exercise of religious expression, without interference, as long as such prayer or other expression is private and voluntary..."
This latest controversy illustrates the importance of passing legislation currently being debated by the Missouri General Assembly called the "Religious Student Liberties Act." Sponsored by Representative Elijah Haahr
, House Bill 1303 was approved by the Missouri House by a vote of 131-16. The proposal will be heard in the Senate Education Committee tomorrow.
The bill would guarantee that students may engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during, and after the school day "in the same manner and to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression..." Public school students would be expressly prohibited from "discriminating against students or parents on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression."
Incidents like that which reportedly occurred at Potosi High School are often the result of misunderstanding by public school teachers and administrators. They falsely misconstrue the constitutional theory of the "separation of church and state" to require the exclusion of any form of religious expression from public school activities or public school facilities.
Representative Haahr's bill would be of tremendous benefit in this regard. It would encourage school districts to establish formal policies to spell out for the benefit of staff members and students the scope of the religious liberties enjoyed by students in their local schools.
We encourage you to contact your state senator to request their vote for House Bill 1303. There are four weeks left in the legislative session, and it is important that this bill receive expedited attention by the Missouri Senate.
You can contact your state senator by using this link:Your State Senator