A newly signed law designed to protect religious expression in Missouri’s public schools reinforces a constitutional amendment passed two years ago, but some say that it could lead to fewer opportunities for students to express their religious views.
The law, HB1303, was signed last week by Gov. Jay Nixon. Dubbed the “Missouri Student Religious Liberties Act,” it says that:
-- “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 shall not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject.”
-- “Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.”
-- “Students in public schools may pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression, provided that such religious expression or religious activities are not disruptive of scheduled instructional time or other educational activities and do not impede access to school facilities or mobility on school premises.”
-- “Students in public schools may wear clothing, accessories and jewelry that display religious messages or religious symbols in the same manner and to the same extent that other types of clothing, accessories and jewelry that display messages or symbols are permitted.”
Sponsored by Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, the bill passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate. It was one of several bills signed by the governor last week.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education took no position on the bill, and a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri said the group thought it was unneeded.
Susan Goldammer, an attorney with the Missouri School Boards Association, said that much of the material in the new law was covered by a constitutional amendment that won overwhelming approval from Missouri voters in August 2012.
It said simply:
- That the right of Missouri citizens to express their religious beliefs shall not be infringed;
- That school children have the right to pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools; and
- That all public schools shall display the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.
What the new law will do, Goldammer said, is require that Missouri public school districts write new policies ensuring that religious expression is not infringed upon at public, school-sponsored events where students may speak.
“It’s going to be a new policy and quite honestly kind of a new area for school lawyers to contemplate,” she said.
“The intent, I suspect, was to allow for more freedom of speech in student graduation speeches, although it does not come right out and say this. The focus seems to be that we can’t discriminate against a student’s voluntary expression of religious viewpoint in those speeches.”
Ironically, Goldammer said, the law could lead to fewer opportunities for students to express their views, religious or otherwise.
“The concern in creating a legal term of a limited public forum,” she said, “is that school districts have less of an ability to monitor for appropriateness of student speech at those events.
“One of my concerns is that the end result will be that we will allow kids to speak at the events less, because the district doesn’t have as much ability to screen the content of the speech.”
She said the association would provide model policies for districts to use as they draw up their own.
“There are many directions which individual districts can take,” Goldammer said. “I think this will certainly be something that districts will think about before they create events where students are allowed to speak.”
Religion and public schools have been in the news and in the courts in Missouri before, most notably in the case of the Good News/Good Sports club in Ladue in the mid-1990s. That concerned the use of school facilities by non-school groups, some of which were religious in nature, if the facilities were opened up to other groups.
Goldammer said the new law concerns school-sponsored events where students may speak, like graduation or talent shows, rather than events sponsored by other groups.