Virginia Passes ''Religious Expression'' Bill

Critics say measure, which faces McAuliffe veto threat, could allow for anti-LGBT bullying

By John Riley
Published on February 26, 2014, 5:02pm | Comments

The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill today that prohibits schools from preventing the expression of religious viewpoints – in speech, clothing, or accessories and through student prayer groups or religious clubs.

The bill, SB236, passed the House 64-34 on a mostly party-line vote. The measure passed the Senate by a 20-18 vote in January, but that was prior to the election of two Democratic senators, Jennifer Wexton (D-Loudoun, Fairfax counties) and Lynwood Lewis (D-Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Mathews, Accomack and Northampton counties), whose elections tipped control of the Virginia Senate to Democrats. In the Senate, one Democrat, Sen. Phil Puckett (D-Radford, Norton, Pulaski, Tazewell, Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, Smyth, Wise, Montgomery counties) voted in favor of the bill, and one Republican, Sen. John Watkins (R-City of Richmond, Powhatan, Chesterfield counties) voted against it.

SB236 seeks to codify rights that students already enjoy under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, such as the ability to engage in prayer or religious observation on school grounds if they so choose. The bill also allows students to organize religious clubs or gatherings and requires that schools afford those religious organizations the same resources and facilities granted to other clubs or activities. School divisions are permitted under the bill to disclaim school sponsorship of particular student organizations, so long as they do so in a manner that ''neither favors nor disfavors groups that meet to engage in prayer or religious speech.''

SB236 allows students to express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork or other assignments, which must all be judged by ''ordinary academic standards'' without regard to the content of such speech. Students may wear clothing, accessories or jewelry displaying religious messages or symbols, and each school system is required to adopt a policy that allows students to express religious views during ''limited public forums,'' such as during graduation ceremonies, and would prevent schools or teachers from attempting to regulate any form of religious expression, so long as it is not deemed disruptive to the school environment nor ''obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd or indecent.''

But LGBT and allied groups, including the commonwealth's major LGBT-rights organization, Equality Virginia, are concerned that the broad nature of the bill's language, and the restrictions on schools and educators, may give students free license to attack or bully their LGBT peers by citing religious freedom.

''Equality Virginia is disappointed in the passage of SB236 through the Senate and now the House of Delegates,'' James Parrish, Equality Virginia's executive director, said in a statement following the House vote. ''This bill could have the consequence of allowing students to discriminate against their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender peers under the guise of religious freedom. As Virginia moves toward becoming more inclusive and welcoming for all individuals and families regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, this legislation stands out as a step in the wrong direction. We hope that Governor McAuliffe will stand by his word to veto this bill.''

McAuliffe's office previously said he would veto the bill, citing constitutional issues and possible unintended consequences of the legislation.