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School prayer bill advances

It was a close vote, but a Senate committee Thursday passed a bill that’s meant to give public school students stronger rights to voluntarily pray, organize prayer groups in school and wear religious-themed clothing.

Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, said his Senate Bill 236 “protects the right of students to express their religious viewpoint.”

It says students have a right 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.” It also says students may organize religious clubs and prayer groups to the same extent that non-secular clubs are allowed in schools, and that religious clothing or jewelry is allowed just as much as other types of clothing or jewelry are allowed.

The bill also said schools must adopt policies that would let student speakers pray or express religious viewpoints at any event — like graduation or a ball game — where students are allowed to speak.

“The policy shall declare each such school event to be a limited public forum, provide a neutral method for the selection of student speakers, and require each school principal to provide a disclaimer in advance of each such school event that the school division does not endorse any religious viewpoint that may be expressed by student speakers,” the bill says.

Carrico has a history of proposing legislation that promotes or protects public prayer, and said this bill would protect students’ rights while also protecting schools from lawsuits.

Rita Dunaway, a lawyer with the Virginia Christian Alliance, told the Senate Education and Health Committee that the bill doesn’t violate the establishment clause because it doesn’t refer to any specific religion, nor does it treat religious speech differently than other speech.

“This bill would ensure that school officials remain neutral to religious speech,” she said. “This bill is good for students and it’s good for schools.”

But Claire Guthrie Gastanaga of the American Civil Liberties Union disagreed.

“This law is exactly the opposite of what she says it does,” Gastanaga told the committee. “It’s either completely unnecessary or it’s dangerous.”

Gastanaga said the state school boards association had wanted an amendment saying the state attorney general will defend school divisions if they’re sued under the bill — because they expect to be sued if it goes into law, she said.

Gastanaga said Carrico’s bill is not needed, because guidelines covering speech in schools already exist.

Passing the bill, she said, would introduce confusion “with no actual benefit to anyone.”

The committee voted to pass the bill by just one vote, 7-6. It will now go to the full Senate.