Texas congressional bill on religious freedom at school is middle ground, but could be seen as proselytizing

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Texas House of Representative gave preliminary approval this to the Schoolchildren's Religious Liberties Act, which calls for school districts to set guidelines allowing students to express their religious views in "limited public forums" at school events without fear of punishment.

The bill would also protect students from punishment for expressing religious views in school assignments and would allow them to organize religious groups and have the same access to school facilities as non-religious groups. The bill needs final approval from the House before advancing to the Senate.

Two University of North Texas faculty members disagree about why such a bill is needed in Texas.

Dr. Joe Barnhart, a professor of philosophy and religion studies, saying allowing public prayers led by students at school football games would verge on promoting a religion.

"The fans are using public facilities paid for by the public. But the public is not one voice and not one religion. Football fans are in the stands for one purpose. They therefore become a captive audience if authorities insert another purpose," Barnhart says.

He says, however, that students should be allowed to discuss religion in school assignments - if it is appropriate to the subject. He also agrees with the bill's stipulations to allow religious groups to meet at public schools after regular hours the way secular groups are able to meet - as long as the religious groups are student organizations and not fronts for adults to evangelize students.

But he adds that many school districts already allow student religious organizations to use their campuses as meeting spaces.

"We don't need this grandiose law to provide that specific option," he says.

Dr. Kimi King, UNT associate professor of political science at UNT and an expert on constitutional law, says the Texas House probably approved the Schoolchildren's Religious Liberties Act to find middle ground on the issue of religious expression, not to promote one religion over another. She points the U.S. Supreme Court first heard a case on religious freedom of expression in 1940. The case focused on the right of Jehovah's Witnesses to go door-to-door to express their religious viewpoint with a city that did not want them to do so.

"It is the context where the speech occurs and the extent to which students can ‘escape' a message that may proselytize that will be the important factor that the court will weigh in any issue," she says.

She says the issue has been in the forefront because, increasingly, the court has been concerned about the extent to which religious speech and expression should be protected like any other category of speech. Recently, the court has been seen as hostile to religion in cases addressing school prayer at the elementary and secondary school levels, while also saying that mandated religious expression should be allowed access on college campuses, she says.

Undoubtedly, more lawsuits will ensue over this issue, she says, as school districts are placed in a difficult position.

"They must both protect the free exercise of their students' beliefs while simultaneously preventing an appearance that somehow they are establishing religion," King says.

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