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Bill offers protection for religious rights in public school

Bill offers protection for religious rights in public school

April 24th, 2014 in News

A Potosi teacher recently told students "they were not allowed to have their Bibles out in the school," state Rep. Elijah Haahr told Missouri senators Wednesday.

While that statement violated the school district's policy and was corrected quickly, it shows why lawmakers should pass his proposed "Missouri Student Religious Liberties Act," the Springfield Republican told the Senate's Education Committee.

His bill passed the House on April 8, by a 131-16 vote.

"The only concern seemed to be - is this something that's needed in Missouri?" Haahr said. "Are problems like this cropping up?"

He said his bill "enshrines in our statutes a clear delineation of the rights of our school children to their religious expression in school. It also provides our schools with a clear guide to what rights our children have and how to protect those rights."

An attorney, Haah noted the language in his bill was gleaned from bills passed in Mississippi, Texas and Arizona. Other states are considering similar proposals.

"I don't believe that most school districts that have these problems intend to overstep the line," Haahr told the senators. "I think it's just a matter that they don't know exactly what those lines are, and I would like to provide them with clear guidance."

No one testified against the bill, although some said privately it's not needed.

Courts generally have ruled the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment protections mean government, including the public schools, cannot order students to take part in, or lead, prayers or other religious activities - but that students also must be allowed to express their religious thoughts as long as they are not disrupting classes or school operations.

Haahr said his bill includes language allowing students to "engage in religious expression to the same extent they may engage in non-religious activity or expression - as long as it's not disruptive of scheduled instructional time or other educational activities, and does not impede access to school facilities."

He testified the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in four cases cases dealing with student speech, but none specifically dealt with religious speech.

Former state Rep. Joe Ortwerth, R-St. Charles, now heads and lobbies for the Missouri Family Policy Council.

He sees Haahr's bill as the "implementing legislation" for the constitutional amendment voters approved in 2012 saying that all citizens have a right to express their religious beliefs and that school children have the right to pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools.

Haahr's bill, Ortwerth said, "will serve its most significant purpose in encouraging policies to be adopted in school districts that lay all this out."

But is it needed if the federal and state constitutions have clear language already protecting those rights?

"There is very little in the way of guiding documents for schools, school boards, parents, teachers, administrators and others in understanding what are student liberties and where student liberties not only begin, but where they end," Kerry Messer testified for his Missouri Family Network.

"This bill delineates this for us."

No one from the Missouri School Boards Association testified at the hearing.

But it has policies already adopted by many Missouri public school districts, including Jefferson City, that allow teaching "about religion but may not promote any particular religion or religious belief," and that "nothing in this policy is to be construed as inhibiting otherwise constitutionally protected religious expression by any individual."

The Senate Education Committee did not take any action on Haahr's bill Wednesday.