NASHVILLE — Local school boards would be required to let select students voluntarily express their "religious viewpoints," be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan or atheist, at football games, school assemblies and graduation ceremonies under a bill moving in the House.
The "Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act" passed on the House Education Committee on Tuesday on a voice vote after a motion to put it in summer study was tabled.
Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, the bill's sponsor, said his legislation is needed to protect students. If anyone has issues with the bill, Holt said, "then you're expressing your problem with the First Amendment and not with my bill."
The bill has not started moving yet in the Senate.
Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said students are already allowed to pray and have Bible clubs under a bill he passed in the mid-1990s.
The American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee warns that Holt's bill would subject children "to unwarranted prayer and proselytizing in a variety of inappropriate settings, including the classroom, school-day assemblies and school events."
Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, told Holt, "I stand with you. My county borders a county where students have not been able to express" their religious viewpoints. "My constituents need this."
Attorney Chuck Cagle, who represents a number of school boards, "bluntly" told lawmakers he needed to warn them that "the one thing that we tend to forget when we're talking about religious activity in schools, those religious activities don't cover just those of us who are Protestant.
"They cover everybody. They cover the Wiccans and those of Jewish faith. ... The 7th Circuit [Court of Appeals] has even recognized that atheism is a religion," Cagle said, noting that the new law would cause school boards and communities "heartburn."
Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, asked Holt whether the bill would "mandate" that a high school accept a Muslim student who wants to "to extol the virtues of the Koran to a graduating class."
"That is correct," Holt replied, and the same goes for "Wiccan values."
"It also gives the opportunity for a Christian student to express their personal faith -- and the salvation I hold as my personal faith -- it gives them the opportunity to do that as well," Holt said.
House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, said that, while he backs the bill, "there is one thing we need to make clear. There is going to be some turmoil out there. As long as your religion is being spoken ... everything's absolutely fine.
"But whenever it does come to, whether it be a Wiccan or a Muslim or whatever, a lot of our community is going to get up in arms that don't believe in that. You're going to have an uproar out of this world in a lot of communities because something's being talked about and speech is being made totally against 99 percent of what the community believes in."
The bill requires school boards to provide a method, based on "neutral criteria," for the selection of student speakers at school events and graduation ceremonies. School systems would also must adopt a policy regarding a limited public forum and voluntary student expression of religious viewpoints.
Only students in the highest two grade levels of the school and who also are a student council officer, football team captain, top class officer or other position of honor established by local schools "based on neutral criteria" would be eligible to use the limited public forum.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...