Bill would protect religious speech in schools - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Bill would protect religious speech in schools

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Posted: Friday, June 20, 2008 5:58 pm | Updated: 11:19 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

State senators have voted to protect the religious liberties of students, a measure foes said will let them harass others who don't share their beliefs, especially homosexuals.

HB2713 would prohibit public schools from discriminating against students or their parents on the basis of their religious beliefs. The measure given preliminary approval also would preclude schools from barring students from wearing T-shirts, jewelry and other accessories that include religious messages if similar items with secular messages are permitted.

Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, said the measure is necessary because some school officials are not following federal constitutional requirements.

There have been several high-profile incidents in Arizona.

A student at Higley High School had his personal biography in the yearbook altered to remove a reference to God. And students at Deer Valley High School were forbidden to use the public-address system generally available to all clubs to invite students to a prayer meeting after school.

Sen. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, said students are entitled to express their beliefs. But she said there has to be some ability of school administrators to set limits.

She sought to amend the measure to let school officials enforce policies that prohibit bullying, harassment and discrimination based on factors ranging from race and religion to sexual orientation, gender identity "or any other distinguishing characteristics."

But Sen. Jack Harper, R-Surprise, said that would allow the very type of discrimination the legislation is trying to preclude.

He used the example of the annual national Day of Silence "where the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community tries to encourage students to flaunt their alternative lifestyle." Harper said students are allowed to wear clothing which identifies themselves as supporters of gay rights.

In response, Harper said, some Christian groups promoted a national Day of Truth on the preceding day where students would "encourage a traditional lifestyle." He said the proposal by McCune Davis would make those shirts illegal.

"But the propaganda passed out in the Day of Silence would not," Harper said.

But Sen. Ken Cheuvront, D-Phoenix, said there are differences.

"We all believe that people should be able to say what they want, without hurting other people," he said.

Cheuvront described himself as an "alternative lifestyle person," using Harper's phrasing. He asked colleagues, for example, whether it would be allowable to wear a shirt suggesting God hates homosexuals. He said the ability to express beliefs must be tempered by the ability of school administrators to ensure that students are not bullied or harassed.

Harper, however, said permitting school officials to censor certain beliefs because someone else might be offended would forbid a student from wearing a T-shirt which says, "It's time for an honest conversation about homosexuality."

But he said a student could wear a shirt celebrating his or her homosexuality.

"I believe that's patently unfair to limit one person's constitutional rights but not another's," Harper said.

The bill, which has House approval, needs a final Senate vote before going to the governor.

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