Texas governor signs religious student expression law

TEXAS — A measure signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry (R) on June 8 will protect students’ rights to religious expression in the state’s public schools.

The Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Howard (R-Sugar Land), prevents public school districts from punishing students who express a religious viewpoint in “homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments.” Supporters of the act said it was necessary because it affirms students’ free speech rights but critics have said the act may result in increased hurtful, discriminatory speech on school campuses.

Howard said confusion about student expression on school grounds has misled administrators to believe that they can rightfully ban students from saying “Merry Christmas” or stop them from passing out candy canes. Howard said the bill will not only benefit student expression, but will also prevent school districts from getting sued and taxpayers from losing money from these suits.

“The whole purpose of this was to create a win-win-win situation,” Howard said.

House Bill 3678, which passed with a 107-32 vote in the House and a 28-2 vote in the Senate, also requires school districts to establish a “limited public forum” at school events, including graduation and sports games, that will enable students to express themselves without fear of being disciplined. The bill also requires schools to provide a method based on “neutral criteria” of selecting student speakers for these events.

The bill encountered much opposition in the Texas legislature because some feared that the bill created new, extra-constitutional rights and others said it would open up the possibility of discriminatory speech, said Rep. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa), chair of the Texas house of appropriations committee and a co-sponsor of the bill.

Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth), a Quaker, and Rep. Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), who is Jewish, spoke out against the bill over concerns that it would favor students of majority faiths.

Hochberg said the section of the bill that requires schools to select the students who will speak at public forum events will likely increase rather than reduce the number of lawsuits brought against school districts for religious discrimination.

“When you send your child to a public school you ought to believe that the school is religiously neutral,” he said.

But Howard said the new law seeks to protect secular and non-Christian speech as well and does “not protect one religion over another.”

The House originally amended the bill to stipulate that allowable religious speech could not discriminate against someone else’s race, age, sexuality or religious beliefs, but the Senate deleted this clause in its own amendments.

Howard said the House’s amendment was removed because it would have put the bill’s constitutionality into question.

The Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act will take effect at the beginning of the 2007-2008 academic year.