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Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, is working on a bill patterned after a new law in Mississippi that he says will better protect the religious rights of students in public schools.
But the group Atheists of Utah says it looks like an end run around recent Supreme Court decisions by seeking to allow prayer in morning announcements, football games and graduation and will "further separate and ostracize" youths who belong to minority religions or no faith. They contend it violates the Utah Constitution, if not also the U.S. Constitution.
In short, a different sort of Utah holy war is shaping up for next year's legislative session.
Weiler has opened a bill file titled "Religious Freedom for Students." The lawmaker said the legislation is still a work in process but he is using Mississippi's new Student Religious Liberties Act as a guide.
"It basically affirms religious freedoms of students and public schools," Weiler said, "and teaches educators how to protect students' rights."
The Mississippi law does such things as specifically protect the right of a student to express a religious viewpoint, use religious content in assignments, form religious clubs or activities at schools and wear clothing or jewelry with religious symbols or messages.
Weiler said he is introducing it at the suggestion of constituents and not because of any major problems with such activities in Utah although controversies about them have arisen nationally. "It's more proactive than reactive" to protect religious rights, Weiler said.
While the Atheists of Utah and the American Civil Liberties Union say most of the Mississippi law reiterates rights already guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and court decisions, they are concerned about one section. It allows schools to designate a brief "limited public forum" at the beginning and end of such activities as sports events, graduations and daily announcements.
A Mississippi summary of the law says, "The significance of designating a limited public forum is that once a student is authorized to speak, the school is not legally responsible for what they say, and therefore would not violate the Establishment Clause if they pray." Schools also must advertise that whatever a student says or does at those times expresses his or her own opinions, not those of the school or government.
Atheist view • "It's deeply concerning," said Dan Ellis, president of Atheists of Utah. "It would allow for prayers to be said during morning announcements, at school-sponsored events, at football games and other sporting events."
He worries about it turning into government-sponsored religion.
"It sounds like it would force all students, whether religious or not, to participate in religious instruction by allowing prayers," Ellis said. "My fear is it's going to result in more bullying [of] … students who don't share those beliefs."
The Utah Constitution "states specifically that 'no public money or property shall be appropriated or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or for the support of any ecclesiastical instruction.' "
So, Ellis said, "It sounds to me that the way the Mississippi bill is written that it would be in violation of Utah's Constitution."
The conservative Liberty Counsel has championed Mississippi's law as constitutional, and volunteered to defend it against any challenges. "The act is within the bound of the First Amendment," including clarifying "when a limited public forum for the exercise of private speech exists," its general counsel, Steve Crampton, said in a news release.
ACLU view • Karen McCreary, executive director of the ACLU of Utah, says the portion of the bill allowing limited public forums is "potentially problematic because of the feeling by other students that they are being coerced to hear someone [pray]."
Other rights the bill seeks to protect are already guaranteed by the Constitution and other laws, McCreary said, adding that her group would fight to protect victims of any such violations. "We don't need a bill like this," she said. "These kinds of bills tend to be more divisive along religious lines."
Ellis said such emotional issues can turn into school health and safety problems.
"With our suicide rates increasing among younger students, we should be looking at ways to make all students feel safe and welcome, not looking at ways to sow seeds of division among our students."
He called the proposal "a huge waste of time and money. I think Senator Weiler and other members of Utah's Legislature would serve their respective constituencies much better by examining ways to improve secular education of our students, and leave it to their parents and spiritual leaders to tend to their religious education."
Another bill on freedom of religion
Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, is working on a bill he says will require schools to teach more about the First Amendment freedom of religion which he asserts is often misunderstood.
"We see a lot of teaching about freedom of speech and the press," Reid said, "but not on freedom of religion."
Atheists of Utah President Dan Ellis said his group would need to see the final bill before taking a position but added he has no problem with the bill's concept.
"If a school wants to teach students what their religious freedoms are, I'm all in favor of that. That is a secular ideal that they should have certain freedoms, the freedom of and from religion being one of them."