Monday, June 9, 2014
Following a number of school religious expression bills introduced in state legislatures in the last year, the North Carolina House passed a bill last week that allows public school students to pray, express religious viewpoints, pass out religious materials, and assemble "as is given to other noncurricular groups without discrimination based on the religious content of the students' expression." The N.C. House approved S.B. 370, which also provides that school employees who are viewing student religious expression "shall not be disrespectful of the student exercise of such rights and may adopt a respectful posture." The bill will have to return to the state senate for final approval, where it is expected to pass. The ACLU of North Carolina released a statement objecting to the bill's language which it says could leave school officials unclear about the rules, particularly as adopting "a respectful posture" could communicate approval of one religious view above others. In application, the legislation is certain to highlight the tension between the Establishment and the Free Speech and Exercise Clauses that currently require public school officials to show neutrality in their treatment of religion and not inhibit student expression of privately-held views as long as that expression does not infringe upon the rights of others. For an overview of the constitutional issues, read the ED's Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools here.