Okla. House passes bill to protect student religious expression

By The Associated Press
03.14.08

OKLAHOMA CITY — Legislation that protects students' rights to express their religious viewpoints in public school classrooms was approved by the Oklahoma House yesterday despite objections from opponents who said it was unnecessary.

"This is a solution looking for a problem," said Rep. Ed Cannaday, D-Porum, a former school teacher and administrator. Cannaday said the measure, which passed 71-25, expresses contempt for public school administrators by micromanaging what can occur in classrooms.

Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa, said the bill merely compiled the legal guidelines from the federal government on a student's right to express his religious views at school.

"The real issue here is giving everyone a level playing field," Sullivan said. "This allows consistency across the board."

Sullivan said the measure did not favor one religion over another and did not violate the legal prohibition against public school officials sanctioning a religious point of view.

The measure says school districts must treat a student's voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint the same way it treats a student's voluntary expression of a viewpoint on another subject. It also says the school may not discriminate against a student on the basis of a religious viewpoint.

"Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions," the measure states.

It says students may organize prayer groups, religious clubs and religious gatherings before, during and after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other non-curricular student activities and groups.

Religious groups must be given the same access to school facilities for assembling as is given to other non-curricular groups without discrimination based on the religious content of the student expression.

The bill also requires school districts to implement policies to provide a limited public forum and voluntary student expression of religious viewpoints.

Rep. Wade Rousselot, D-Wagoner, said he was concerned that the measure may permit students to discuss religious viewpoints that do not conform to traditional Christian views. "We're still a country based on God," Rousselot said.

Rep. Ray McCarter, D-Marlow, said the bill makes students "a captive audience" when others are expressing religious viewpoints they may not agree with. The House tabled an amendment by McCarter that would have allowed students to walk out of the classroom and not have to listen to another student's religious expressions.

Rep. Jeannie McDaniel, D-Tulsa, said students can already pray at school and that the measure is not necessary.

"I don't think we need it. I think we're opening up a can of worms," McDaniel said.

The measure, House Bill 2211, now goes to the Senate for action.