Following an incident in Mineral County last year, a bill to create a Religious Liberties in Schools Act has passed the West Virginia House of Delegates in a 76 to 22 vote and will move on to the state Senate for consideration.
House Bill 4069 would require local school districts to adopt a model policy, similar to the one recommended in the legislation with an objective of ensuring that schools aren’t discriminating against or sponsoring the expression of any particular religious viewpoint.
“By starting in the schools and making sure students know their civil rights matter at that age, this could make them the civil rights leaders of the future,” Del. Gary Howell, R-Mineral, said last Wednesday after the bill passed the House Education Committee. Howell is the bill’s lead sponsor.
He says the legislation was prompted by an event in October, when members of both football teams at a game in Frankfurt were photographed holding an impromptu prayer before the game.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit advocating for the separation of church and state, wrote a letter criticizing the Mineral County school board for the incident.
“This was the students expressing their first amendment right, freedom of religion,” Howell said.
The bill stipulates that model policy should include “neutral criteria” for the selection of student speakers at school events. The bill recommends selecting students based on “positions of honor,” such as student council officers or football team captains.
Many of the delegates who spoke against the bill are Democrats on the House Education committee that considered the bill last week. They argued this criteria interferes with local control.
“The Legislature does not need to be telling our county school systems who can speak at graduations, who cannot speak, [or] for how long,” Thompson, a teacher in Elkins, Randolph County, told other Delegates on Tuesday. “I just worry [that] we're going to start getting into this weird area, where we're not going to let students with disabilities or special needs speak … I don't like that. I like letting the schools make that decision.”
The legislation also prohibits a student from including any remarks that are “obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd or indecent,” with all of these terms being defined according to a school district’s interpretation.
According to Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, this language isn’t specific enough.
“There’s nothing really detailing who is going to be the one to determine what would be offensive, lewd or anything like that,” Hornbuckle said during an interview on Friday.
Earlier last week, Hornbuckle proposed a couple amendments dealing with language and speaker requirements, both of which failed in the House Education Committee.
“I just think it's a bad policy, because it also means that what Huntington High might deem as offensive, or lewd, let’s say Pendleton county might not,” Hornbuckle said. “So, there's really no consistency there in the law across the state.”
Another thing the bill addresses is how a school should assess a student’s written, oral and artistic assignments. According to the bill, “students may express disagreement and offer opposing views regarding any issue based on religious beliefs.”
The bill was amended on Tuesday by request of Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, to add that this provision does not excuse students from answering a question correctly just because the content “is counter to the religious beliefs of the student.”
Del. Jim Butler, R-Mason, disagreed with the amendment. He said on Monday he proposed changing the bill to include a similar provision, but one with the “acknowledgement that sometimes science is either wrong or it changes as circumstances change or evidence changes.”
A request from Del. Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, on Tuesday to send the bill to the House Judiciary Committee for a second opinion failed, despite arguments from the bill’s opponents that the first amendment already allows the freedom of religious expression in public places.
Although the event that inspired the legislation dealt Christians praying before a football game, Howell said last week his bill is meant to help students of all religions, minority or majority, by protecting them from discrimination.
When asked last Wednesday whether Howell supports other proposals dealing with discrimination — namely a bill in his committee to prevent discrimination based on hair type, or several bills to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation — he said he had yet to read them.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.