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Students and Teachers Rights to Religious Expression Clarified in NC Senate Bill 370

Proposed law passes Senate and House, goes back to Senate for concurrence vote
By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
June 5, 2014

PrayerRALEIGH — Can students pray aloud over their lunch in a public school? Can they pass out invitations to a Dharma talk or to Vacation Bible School in the hallway? Are they allowed to organize a club to study the Quran? And if teachers are present for any of these activities, is it legal for them to bow their heads or otherwise adopt a respectful posture?

These are just a few of many questions that should be easier to answer thanks to the Respect for Student Prayer/Religious Activity bill approved by the N.C. House Wednesday evening and expected to become law in the near future.

“This legislation is not a fringe or radical religious bill,” said Rep. Josh Dobson (R-McDowell). “It clarifies what rights students have with regards to prayer and religious activities.”

Although the U.S. Constitution and numerous Supreme Court rulings already guarantee these rights, he said an incident in McDowell County in late 2012 revealed the need for a state statue to outline more clearly what’s permissible.

“A first-grade little girl wrote a poem for the school’s Veterans Day program about her grandfather’s service in Vietnam. Because of a reference to God, she was told she could not read it in the Veterans Day ceremony,” Dobson said.

To prevent such censorship, the bill not only highlights students right to pray but also reminds teachers that it’s OK for pupils to express beliefs about religion in homework, artwork and other assignments. It also includes a grievance procedure for students who believe their rights have been violated and ensures that school staff can retain their own First Amendment freedoms.

Before voting 106 to 9 in favor of the bill, House members engaged in a robust if sometimes meandering debate. Rep. Susan Fisher (D-Buncombe) seemed to believe the bill could somehow lead to bullying, while Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham) expressed great angst over the fact that students have a right to express their views, not just audibly, but via written handouts. Rep. Alma Adams (D-Guilford) seemed puzzled by the portion of the bill guaranteeing that students’ would not be penalized based on the religious content of their work, since their assignments, even if they include mention of religion, are to be assessed based on academic standards of substance and relevance and not viewpoint.

Sticking to the substance of the bill, Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland) warned fellow members that the phrase “and may adopt a respectful posture,” in regards to the behavior of school personnel during student prayer could put the measure in jeopardy of violating the Constitution. He had issued a similar warning Tuesday in the House Education Committee, citing case law from the Third and Fifth Circuit courts. Glazier said that while it is legal to ask staff not to be disrespectful of student prayer, allowing them to bow their heads or take a knee could raise First Amendment entanglement issues. He floated an amendment in committee to remove the phrase, but it failed. Even so, on Wednesday, Glazier spoke in support of the bill of which he said he believes “99 percent” is faithful to federal law.

Other lawmakers, including Marcus Brandon (D-Guilford), Bert Jones (R-Caswell), Larry Pittman (R-Cabarrus) and Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer (R-Mecklenburg) also spoke for the bill, reiterating the fact that it simply serves as a reminder that religious expression is on a level playing field with secular speech and that, especially because of the bill’s role in clarifying student and teacher rights, specifics regarding whether teachers can legally bow their heads, are truly necessary.

Brandon, who was a leader in his high school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes, said the organization often had to call on an attorney to reinforce with school administrators both student and faculty rights.

“What happens is when you do not give clear, specific direction, you create ambiguity,” he said. “I think this bill clarifies what you can do.”

Jones said the phrase “may adopt a respectful posture” helps make clear the bill’s intent and that lawmakers should not shy away from it despite what some judges may have ruled.

“We are not ostracizing anyone. We are protecting the right of people to bow their head or take a knee,” he said. “A judge might strike it down, then so be it. We are still a Constitutional Republic.”

Pittman pointed out that omitting the phrase would be no guarantee that the law would not be challenged in court.

“If we remove those words, inevitably, during a student-led prayer, a coach would bow his head and someone would file a lawsuit,” he said.

Although she called the issue a “tricky balancing act,” Schaffer reminded fellow House members that teachers do not lose their Constitutional rights just because they are on a public school campus.

“This is a victory for constitutional freedom, a victory shared by students and school personnel of all faiths,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, who has for a number of years led Students Rights in Public Schools seminars to help spread the word about many of the privileges included in the bill. “We expect and hope the Senate will concur without delay so the measure can become law.”

The upper chamber had approved an earlier version of the bill 48-0. Because of a slight amendment added to the measure in the House Education Committee, the measure goes back to the Senate for a concurrence vote.

To view the vote on the NCGA web site, click here