A Republican legislator in Pennsylvania is submitting a bill that he calls the Student Religious Liberties Act. The actual language of the bill is not yet available, but he has written a memo to his fellow legislators outlining what he seeks to achieve. It looks mostly meaningless to me.
My legislation creating the Student Religious Liberties Act will provide certain protections to students attending public schools, including traditional school districts, charter and cyber charter schools, area vocational-technical schools and intermediate units. More specifically, my bill will:
- Prohibit a public school entity from discriminating against a student who engages in the voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject.
- Discriminate against a student who expresses religious beliefs in homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments.
- Allow a student to pray or engage in religious activity or religious expression before, during and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent as a student may engage in secular activities or expression.
- Allow a student to organize a religious gathering before, during and after the school day to the same extent as a student may organize a secular gathering.
- Require a public school entity to provide a religious group the same access to school facilities and property for assembling or advertising events as is provided to secular groups.
- Allow a student to wear clothing, accessories and jewelry displaying a religious symbol or message in the same manner and to the same extent that a student may wear clothing, accessories and jewelry that display a secular message or symbol.
- Prohibit a public school entity from discriminating against a student speaker based on the student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject.
- Require the Department of Education to develop a model policy that is consistent with the act, and further require each public school entity to adopt the model policy or to adopt its own policy for the protection of student religious liberties that is consistent with the act.
- Preserve a public school entity’s authority to maintain order and discipline on its school campus and protect the safety of school students, employees and visitors.
By establishing these basic protections for school students, my bill will help to ensure that students may engage in speech and activities with a religious perspective without fear of discrimination or penalties.
But nearly everything on that list is already the law, either under the Equal Access Act or numerous court precedents. Students can already express their religious beliefs in all those ways and they do so every single day without a problem. The one potentially problematic line is the one that seeks to protect a student who “expresses religious beliefs in homework.” In almost all cases, that’s already protected. But I want to see the final language on this because it could go beyond the protections already in place and give students the right to opt out of assignments or courses that they find contrary to their religious beliefs.
Missouri did that last year when they passed a similar bill, but that included explicit language that said “no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.” If similar language is in this bill, that’s a big problem. If it remains as it is in this memo, it’s not really that big a deal. Students can already include their religious beliefs in papers or artwork when it is relevant to the subject. For instance, if they have to write a paper on someone they admire, they can write it about Jesus (or Muhammad, or Buddha, etc). If they have to paint a picture for an art class, it can have religious symbolism in it.
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