The Virginia Senate voted on Tuesday 20-18 to pass SB 236, a bill that would enable students to express their religious views to captive audiences of their classmates, potentially creating the appearance that schools have sanctioned or approved a particular religion.
Sen. Bill Carrico’s SB 236 is written to allow student prayer and permit the formation of religious clubs. It would also require forums for faith speech at school events, and specifies that students can wear clothes or jewelry with spiritual iconography or messages.
Carrico said the bill provides legal cover to schools and protects the constitutional right of “each and every student to express their beliefs according to the dictates of their conscience” without giving “preferential treatment” to any one religion.
Critics say the bill codifies several protections that are already present in state or federal statutes and regulations, including equal access to school facilities and the right to wear religious symbols in schools.
Democratic senators argued that the bill is unconstitutional and potentially coercive.
Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said, “This bill purports to promote religious freedom for all, but rather would give the religious majority the opportunity to promote its own sectarian religious beliefs to the exclusion of others – intended or not.”
Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke) said, “There’s no reason why a student cannot express his or her views in the proper context. But we should not have a situation where any student or group can proselytize to students when they are a captive audience. We don’t want students to feel coerced by other students’ views, when they can be construed as the school system’s views. The First Amendment prohibits that.”
Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) said, “The Constitution protects students from proselytization and coercion. The Constitution also — together with state and federal laws and regulations — safeguards many of the protections that this bill purports to guarantee. Parts of this bill are unnecessary; others go much too far. I believe this bill would produce many unintended consequences, and I do not see the need for such a law.”