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RICHMOND — Legislation codifying public school students’ rights to engage in religious activities at school, and let them express their views at school events and ceremonies, has been vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
The legislation was introduced by Rep. Sen. Bill Carrico. (R-Grayson County.)
McAuliffe, a Democrat, in an April 4 letter explaining his decision called the measure constitutionally questionable, unnecessary in a state where student religious expression rights are well established, and a potential cause of litigation.
“Although proponents claim that SB 236 is needed to protect the religious freedom of Virginia’s public school students, the bill actually infringes on students’ right to be free from coercive prayer and religious messaging at both voluntary and required school events,” the governor wrote.
Religious expression covered in Carrico’s bill includes prayer meetings on campus, forming clubs, limited forums for faith speech at events like graduation ceremonies, and wearing clothes or accessories with spiritual messages.
Carrico issued a statement after McAuliffe’s veto, saying he was “extremely disappointed in this shortsighted and politically-motivated decision by Gov. McAuliffe.”
Carrico said it appears McAuliffe “would rather stand with the ACLU and other far-left interest groups instead of with students of faith throughout the Commonwealth. This veto is yet another example of a governor who campaigned as a moderate and is governing as an extremist.
“From trying to force the expansion of Obamacare to turning his back on religious liberties, Gov. McAuliffe continues to show that he is interested only in forcing his far-left agenda on the people of the Commonwealth.”
Family Foundation president Victoria Cobb also lamented McAuliffe’s veto, saying it’s unfortunate he “somehow finds middle and high school kids simply talking about their faith to be threatening.”
“Students in Virginia should not be discriminated against simply for voicing their faith in a graduation speech or during debate club,” she added. “We hope that common sense will prevail and that the General Assembly will override his veto.”
It takes a two-thirds vote in both the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate to override a veto. The legislature reconvenes April 23 to weigh McAuliffe’s legislative amendments and vetoes.
Praise for his decision came from Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.
She argued that instead of providing additional legal protections, it “would have authorized the government to pick sides on the question of religion — a thoroughly un-American and unconstitutional proposition.”
McAuliffe’s veto of the bill is the third of his young term and his second of a bill dealing with religious expression in the public square — issues that invoke passionate separation of church and state debate.