HB 3678 was signed on 6.8.07 and is effective immediately. Praise the Lord. Although my kids don't attend public schools, I can still be happy for the small victories that their public school peers gain. It isn't their fault they are in public school. I wish the best for each of them. Texas is a great state to homeschool in... and hopefully it will become a little better by and by for the public schoolers as well. These no-nonsense type laws surely help.
RELIGIOUS STUDENTS' RIGHTS CLARIFIED IN NEW STATUTE
by Kelly Coghlan
Schools are not religion-free zones, school officials are not prayer-police, religious students are not enemies of the state, and the Texas Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act makes all that clear. The Act, which goes into affect this summer, provides much needed guidance for school officials who have sometimes felt compelled to quash students' religious expressions for fear of lawsuits. The new law pulls together Supreme Court rulings into a format that is easy to understand and apply.
"This law is a victory for freedom and non-discrimination for every young Texan," said Rep. Charlie Howard who introduced the bill. "It is win-win for students, school administrators and teachers. No longer will a cloud of confusion obscure the rights to individual expression students enjoy under the U.S. Constitution. School officials need no longer fear the threat of lawsuits simply for allowing students to exercise their constitutional rights." Houston attorney Joe Reynolds who has represented more Texas school districts than any other attorney said "this is the best piece of legislation for school districts that has been introduced in the past 50 years."
This Act does not require or suggest that any child express a prayer or other religious viewpoint, it just protects them if they do. Whether or not a student will ever use a speaking opportunity to express a religious viewpoint on an otherwise permissible topic is a matter upon which school officials must not speculate, opine or discuss since school officials must remain neutral. Doing otherwise will land a school in constitutional hot water.
The first section of the Act (Sec. 25.151) reads: "A school district shall treat a student's voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the district treats a student's voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject and may not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject." The remainder of the Act shows schools how to implement this into practice.
A safe harbor model policy (Sec. 25.156) for schools to include in their local policies is a part of the Act. If a school district adopts and follows the suggested model policy, the district is assured of compliance with the Act regarding all matters covered in the policy. Schools are free to draft their own policy but will not have the assurance that they are in compliance with the Act. This type of model policy has been field tested in a number of public school districts for up to 6 years from Texas to Illinois, and Superintendents from two such schools testified in the House and Senate that no student had abused or exploited any speaking opportunity, embarrassed the school district, or caused any lawsuit or complaint under the policy.
The model policy covers the following subjects: Student Expression of Religious Viewpoints, Student Speakers at Non-Graduation Events, Student Speakers at Graduation Ceremonies, Religious Expressions in Class Assignments, and Freedom to Organize Religious Groups and Activities.
The Act establishes safeguards to assure that a student's voluntary religious viewpoint, if any, will not be attributable to the school or mistaken as affirmatively sponsored by the school. Thus, there are requirements of: (1) limited public forums for student speakers, (2) selection of speakers based on neutral criteria, and (3) disclaimers to be read/printed.
Section 25.152 requires the "establishment of a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events at which a student is to publicly speak" in order to, inter alia, "eliminate any actual or perceived affirmative school sponsorship or attribution to the district of a student's expression of a religious viewpoint, if any." The 2001 Supreme Court case of Good News v. Milford Central School holds: "[S]peech discussing otherwise permissible subjects cannot be excluded from a limited public forum on the ground that the subject is discussed from a religious viewpoint. [Excluding a] religious perspective constitutes unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination." Thus, the Texas statute, by using the limited public forum format simply codifies the precise language of the Supreme Court.
Schools are not required to have student speakers for any occasion, and, thus, are not required to establish any limited public forums. But if there are to be student speakers, the limited public forum is required. For schools that opt to adopt the model policy, there are only two required occasions for student speakers: beginning of football games and beginning of the school day. From the inception of public education and football games, these two occasions have traditionally been introduced by student speakers; so nothing new here. Public speaking fosters numerous educational benefits in established pedagogical areas such as Speech, English, Grammar, Drama and Civics. Students have to organize their thoughts, author, prepare, practice, and deliver a concise oral presentation before a live audience, providing valuable educational opportunities. What a waste to allow school events to pass without utilizing them as opportunities for students to advance their communicative skills important skills for any career. Some districts may be tempted to eliminate student speakers altogether, but this would not only be counter-educational but would likely stir up legal issues rather than avoid them. If a district's motivation for eliminating student speakers is to assure that no religious viewpoint will be expressed, that is an unconstitutional motivation inviting legal challenge.
Finally, sections 25.153 & 154 of the Act codify the almost identical language of sections of the U.S. Dept. of Education "Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools," drafted by the attorneys of the U.S. Dept. of Education and U.S. Dept. of Justice.
The Act is an anti-discrimination law protecting students' voluntary expressions of religious viewpoints to the same degree no more and no less as students' voluntary expressions of secular or other viewpoints on otherwise permissible subjects and topics. Religious children do not receive special rights, extra opportunity, preferential treatment or extra protection, just equal rights, equal opportunity, equal treatment and equal protection. That's fair.
[Coghlan is a Houston constitutional trial attorney and author of Those Dangerous Student Prayers. He has represented 159 students and parents as amici curiae before the U.S. Supreme Court on faith-based issues, obtained the first federal injunction preventing censorship of a student's voluntary public prayer in Ward v. Santa Fe I.S.D., and is the legal author of the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act.]
Go Kelly Coghlan!
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