Earlier this year, Virginia legislators attempted to pass Senate Bill No. 236. Among other things, the bill would legalize student-led, administration-supported proselytizing at football games, during morning announcements, graduation ceremonies, and anywhere else where students had a public forum. While the bill had stalled at one point, it eventually made it through both the state Senate (on a 20-18 vote) and House (64-34).
Proponents of the bill argued that it allowed students to organize religious clubs, plan “See you at the pole” gatherings, and wear religious symbols — but all of those things were already legal. The only thing this bill did was “permit a student speaker to express a religious viewpoint at any school event at which a student is permitted to publicly speak.” It was Christian code, letting students know they could (and should) proselytize at every available opportunity. It was a horrible idea, but the legislators didn’t have the backbone to stand up to the Christian Right.
Thankfully, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe had the guts to veto the bill on Friday, citing precisely that distinction:
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. It is firmly settled in law that the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution forbids school-sponsored prayer and religious indoctrination, as well as any school initiative designed to endorse prayer or sponsor a particular religious viewpoint. Further, the federal Equal Access Act requires high schools to allow students’ religious clubs the same privileges afforded to secular clubs.
“It’s unfortunate that Governor McAuliffe somehow finds middle and high school kids simply talking about their faith threatening,” said Victoria Cobb, President of The Family Foundation of Virginia. “Students in Virginia should not be discriminated against simply for voicing their faith in a graduation speech or during debate class. That’s not tolerance or equality. We hope that common sense will prevail and that the General Assembly will override this veto.”
Of course, the Family Foundation is just making things up. No one’s threatened by pre-teens and teenagers talking about their faith. They already have plenty of venues for that — and the group knows it. There’s nothing intolerant or unequal about what the governor did. And you know the moment a Muslim or atheist student took advantage of the same proposed policies, groups like this one would be first in line to complain.
This was the right call on legislation that never should have been proposed in the first place.
Christians will continue to have the benefits of being in the majority. They’ll still get to form clubs and wear religious symbols and voice their opinions when it’s appropriate. But thanks to the governor, no one will mistake the state’s public schools for Christian churches anytime soon.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Scott for the link)