Okla. governor gets student religious-expression bill

By The Associated Press
05.14.08

Editor’s note: Gov. Brad Henry on June 6 vetoed the religious-expression bill (H.B. 2633), saying state and federal laws already allow students to express their faith through voluntary prayer and other activities. “While well-intended, this legislation is vaguely written and may trigger a number of unintended consequences that actually impede rather than enhance such expression,” Henry said.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Brad Henry's desk is the next stop for legislation given final approval May 12 by the Oklahoma House that supporters said would protect students' rights to express their religious viewpoints in public school classrooms.

Opponents warned that the measure may have unintended consequences and could lead to classroom confrontations and disruption.

"If we're going to have school, then we need to forget about this," said Rep. Ray McCarter, D-Marlow, a former school administrator. Under the bill, a student with a different religious viewpoint from one expressed by another student could pontificate to his classmates and disrupt class, McCarter said.

"It could be a radical Muslim. You can't stop them," he said.

House members voted 70-28 to send the Senate-passed bill to Henry. A spokesman for the governor, communications director Paul Sund, said he didn't know whether the governor would sign it.

Although lawmakers passed the measure, an emergency clause that would place the bill in effect upon the governor's signature failed to get the required two-thirds vote of the 101-member House.

Supporters said the measure codified a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions concerning religious expression in public schools and would serve as a guide to public school administrators on what kind of religious expression is permitted in the classroom.

"This bill will prevent frivolous lawsuits," said its author, Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City. Kern said it would help eliminate the kinds of situations in which the American Civil Liberties Union has sued a school system over religious expression in schools.

"It will save our schools a lot of money," she said.

Kern also said it would give school religion clubs and individual students new support to express themselves in school.

"Unreasonable fear of lawsuits currently leads many school officials to unnecessarily censor students," Kern said. "This bill simply ensures that students' First Amendment rights are protected."

"This will make a statement to the students of Oklahoma that we support you," said Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City. "America is a Christian nation."

But McCarter and others said they were concerned about the possible consequences of the bill, particularly classroom confrontations over differing religious viewpoints.

"This is a lot more dangerous than you think it is," McCarter said.

He said the bill was not needed because religious expression is already allowed in Oklahoma schools.

"They have prayer at the flagpole. Nobody discriminates against that," McCarter said. "They can pray all day long in that school class if they want to."

Rep. Ed Cannaday, D-Porum, described the legislation as a "very serious, problematic bill for our schools."

A former school teacher and administrator, Cannaday said he never had a problem in leading students in a discussion of the spiritual nature of things. "This bill is so unnecessary," he said.