ACLU applauds governor’s veto of school prayer bill

constitutionGov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed Senate Bill 236, a bill that would have allowed unconstitutional religious speech at or imposed an unworkable burden on Virginia’s public schools. By requiring that schools create a so-called “limited public forum” at every school event, the bill would have compelled schools to sponsor student prayer at official school events where students (and other members of the school community) are a captive audience, such as graduations, assemblies, and sporting events.

“The U.S. Constitution, Constitution of Virginia, and federal and state law already protect the right of all students individually to engage freely in voluntary prayer and express religious viewpoints on school grounds and in their school work – both activities that the ACLU of Virginia has and will continue to defend vigorously,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. “While adding nothing to the existing protections, however, this legislation would have invited unconstitutional school sponsored religious speech resulting in religious coercion in a limitless range of school settings, including prayers over the loudspeaker at football games and Bible verses recited during morning announcements. This legislation would have authorized the government to pick sides on the question of religion – a thoroughly un-American and unconstitutional proposition.”

Senate Bill 236 would have required schools to create a “limited public forum” at every school event that has a student speaker. The idea comes from U.S. Supreme Court cases saying that when the government makes a “forum” available to a broad range of speakers, nothing those speakers say may be attributed to the government and no speaker can be excluded because of the content of their communications. For example, if a university makes funding available for all student magazines, it is not unconstitutional to fund a student magazine with a religious viewpoint, and it would be unconstitutional to deny funding to any particular student magazine based on its editorial content.

“It makes no sense to apply the notion of ‘limited public forum’ to graduations, assemblies, and other school events,” said Gastañaga.  “In order to create such a forum, the school would have to open the event to anyone who wished to speak. A school cannot select just one student, such as the class valedictorian, and still be in compliance with the ‘limited public forum’ doctrine. In fact, a true application of the ‘limited public forum’ doctrine would transform graduations, assemblies, and other events into free-for-alls for student expression, and would impose an administrative nightmare on schools every time they want to hold such an event. Thus, from both a constitutional and practical standpoint, the Governor had no choice but to veto this legislation.”

The ACLU of Virginia’s letter to the Governor urging him to veto the bill can be read here.

 
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