Supporters: Student religious liberty bill protects all students

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Supporters of a bill to further “clarify” students’ rights to exercise their faith said Tuesday that the bill is a protection for those of any faith or no faith at all.

House Bill 164 has been under scrutiny since it was introduced, and the criticism by education officials and the ACLU continued after it was passed by the House in November, and moved on to the Senate Education Committee in January.

But supporters have been just as vocal in pushing the bill, which seeks to allow religious activities in public schools to be treated in the same way as secular activities, and to allow religious content to be used in school assignments when relevant.

Science teacher Michael Carney told the committee on Tuesday the bill is needed to allow religious clubs within schools to be considered “official,” and guide superintendents and district officials to “adopt and practice Constitutionally-sound policy, not lofty puffery in order to create building cultures that are not faith-hostile.”

Carney said his opinion comes from the experience he had in his school district — which he did not name but has previously been identified in testimony on student religious liberty legislation as Hilliard Davidson — where a student wanted to include her religious group in the yearbook, and pursued legal counsel to get the “recognition and equal access.”

“Long story short, it required parents and students willing to expose themselves to the retribution of district leaders to lawyer-up in order to protect student liberties for all,” Carney said.

Since that experience in 2015, that club and three other officially recognized faith-based clubs have been created in the three high schools of the district. But the school culture still discourages faith-based thinking, Carney said.

“In recent years, several of my high school students asked whether they could include their faith in God as a part of their senior capstone project. They felt they must ask permission,” Carney said, adding that the students are thankful to hear they can include faith in their studies.

The head of an advocacy group pushing religious-centered policies, Citizens for Community Values, said the bill would protect any groups, including those of other religions and atheists, from retribution.

“In short, it strikes the appropriate constitutional balance of protecting religious freedom, while protecting the ability of our public schools to go about their vital business of equipping and educating the next generation,” said Aaron Baer, CCV’s president.

Baer also stood up to arguments that the bill would allow students to give inaccurate answers on school work with the excuse that the answers are religiously based, or create an atmosphere that would allow students to take over school time inappropriately.

“Just like my daughters can’t stand up and interrupt class by singing ‘Go Cubs Go,’ they can’t interrupt class and sing ‘Come Thou Fount’ under this bill,” Baer said.