A House panel narrowly approved a measure Wednesday designed to block schools and teachers from discriminating against students or parents because of the religious views they express.
Deborah Sheasby, an attorney with the Center for Arizona Policy, said the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly said students are allowed to express religious viewpoints on school property. But she told members of the House Committee on K-12 Education several recent events show a specific state statute is needed.
Last year, an incident occurred at Higley High School where a student's personal biography in the school yearbook was edited to remove a reference to God.
In another case, students at Mountain Ridge High School in the Deer Valley Unified School District were denied use of the school's public address system to invite other students to an after-school prayer meeting.
HB2713 would require schools to adopt "content neutral" standards in their rules and regulations. What that means, said Rep. Doug Clark, R-Anthem, is that religious expressions and even religious items would have to be given the same treatment as similar secular expressions and items.
It also would forbid a teacher from altering a student's score on an assignment based on a religious belief.
Rep. David Schapira, D-Tempe, said he fears such a law would let some students wear T-shirts with messages attacking others, such as those who are gay. He also questioned whether such a law would interfere with academics.
But Clark said teachers still would be able to grade their test papers without worrying about religious implications - assuming they asked the questions in the right way.
And Clark pointed to an incident in upstate New York where students were told they could not wear crucifixes.
"I'm not asking for special treatment," Clark told colleagues. "If the school has a policy that says 'no jewelry' or 'no insignia,' then that's fair." But Clark said if students are allowed to wear items promoting the Phoenix Suns, then similar items with religious messages should also be allowed.
Schapira, however, said sometimes there are reasons for differing treatment.
For example, he said a group of gay students may want to wear T-shirts about their organization. He said that does not attack anyone.
"If someone wears a shirt that says that being gay or lesbian is an abomination, that is a direct attack on individuals," which may make wearing those items inappropriate on campus, Schapira said.
Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said both are entitled to the same treatment.
"Both of them have an opinion on what is right and what is wrong," he said. But he said school officials decide that the ones who are being disruptive - and the ones whose views can be stifled - are the ones wearing the religious shirts, "not the ones wearing the other side and attacking the religious perspective."
"Attacking an individual for their choices and for their lifestyle, it's an affront on a person," he said. "I see that differently than disagreeing on an idea."
Clark said there is no infringement on academic freedom.
He was asked what would happen in a geology class where a teacher asked a student the age of a specific fossil. Carbon dating might place its origins millions of years ago; students who accept a more literal interpretation of biblical evolution might believe the item to be only several thousand years old.
"If a teacher says, 'Give us your viewpoint,' then the student should be allowed to give the viewpoint," Clark said, even if it reflects only a religious view.
But Clark said a student could not escape having an answer declared wrong if the question being asked is to date an item based on the theories and science taught in class.
In that case, he said, a student could not provide an answer based instead on biblical teachings.
Similarly, Clark said, a question like "Do you think dinosaurs roamed on the earth with humans?" allows a student to give an opinion.
"If she says, 'Based on the theories we presented in class, compare and contrast,' that's a whole other item," he said.
Chris Thomas, an attorney for the Arizona School Boards Association, said schools that make these decisions are not hostile toward religion. But he said officials find themselves in the position of trying to balance threats of litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League with counter-threats by groups like the Alliance Defense Fund and the Institute for Justice which take up these religious liberties cases.
He also noted that if the case winds up in court, this legislation requires a judge to award actual monetary damages and legal fees to a parent successfully suing.
Farnsworth brushed aside the concerns of new litigation, pointing out parents already can sue in federal court. This, he said, just gives them an additional avenue.