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RICHMOND — A state senator who has waded into religious freedom issues in past legislation wants to add language protecting students’ expressions of faith while in school, according to the text of Senate Bill No. 236.
Sen. Bill Carrico, a former state trooper who serves District 40 in the Virginia Senate, previously sought to overturn a Virginia State Police administrative order telling its chaplains to deliver non-denominational prayers at official events while still in the House of Delegates.
For the 2014 General Assembly session, Carrico has proposed changes to existing state code on “student-initiated prayer” and “student religious viewpoint expression.”
Virginia law gives each student in the state a guarantee of “free exercise of religion” in schools. The law bans the commonwealth from applying pressure on students “either to engage in, or to refrain from, religious observation on school grounds.”
This is consistent with the constitutionally-granted right of freedom of religion and separation of church and state, the law says.
Carrico offers a 148-word amendment with specific situations that the law should apply to and how it should apply.
The new language would allow students to “voluntarily 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,” the proposal said. “Students may organize prayer groups, religious clubs, ‘see you at the pole’ gatherings, or other religious gatherings before, during and after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other activities and groups.”
The language goes on to grant access to groups involved in religious expression to school facilities and allow them to advertise activities.
Finally, this proposal would allow school divisions to make a disclaimer, stating that educators have not sponsored the religious expression activities.
Under student religious viewpoint expression, which allows students to express their religious beliefs in existing law, Carrico’s proposal addresses certain vehicles of that expression.
“Students may wear clothing, accessories or jewelry that displays religious messages or religious symbols in the same manner and to the same extent that other types of clothing, accessories and jewelry are permitted,” the law said.
Secondly, the proposal orders school systems to create a “limited public forum” at all school events where students may speak, including graduations.
The bill also requires school systems to provide a disclaimer that it doesn’t endorse any specific religious viewpoint in connection with student speakers.
Finally, the proposal notes that school officials could continue to regulate student speech that would prove to be generally disruptive or that which would be found obscene, vulgar, lewd or indecent.