ACLU praises Senate veto of school prayer bill

constitutionToday, the General Assembly voted to sustain Governor McAuliffe’s veto of Senate Bill 236, a bill that could have compromised the religious freedom of public school students.

“We are pleased that the Senate of Virginia refused to override the Governor’s veto,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. “This bill was, at best, completely unnecessary, and, at worst, a dangerous invitation to impose government sponsored religious speech on students and other members of the school community who are a captive audience. The U.S. Constitution, the Constitution of Virginia, and federal and state statutes already explicitly protect a student’s right to engage in voluntary prayer at school functions and on school grounds and to express religious viewpoints in their school work. The ACLU of Virginia has and will continue to defend these rights vigorously without need for the purported additional protection afforded by this poorly conceived ‘message bill.'”

Senate Bill 236 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. This bill, while touted as a bill to protect religious freedom, would have had the opposite effect, by subjecting students to religious coercion.

In addition, the bill’s attempt to avoid this result through the creation of so-called “limited public forums” is ill-conceived and ineffective. In order to create such a forum, the school would have to open the event to anyone who wished to speak. Thus, a school could not select just one student, such as the class valedictorian, and still be in compliance. 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.

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