Once in a while, a lawmaker who votes wrong on church-state legislation manages to make an argument that actually supports AU’s position.
Meet Tennessee State Rep. Richard Montgomery (R-Sevierville). He voted for a bill that would require public school districts to create “a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events where a student will speak publicly.” That’s legalese for a system that lets students pray and proselytize with a captive audience of their classmates.
Before casting his vote, Montgomery summed up what’s wrong with HB 3616, the "Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act."
“I like the bill, but I do know it comes with consequences,” Montgomery said, according to The (Nashville) Tennessean. “That is, as long as the speaker is speaking what I believe, everything is good, but when they start speaking what I don’t believe, there may be controversy in the communities.”
Even in the smallest communities, there is bound to be at least one student who is uncomfortable with a speaker who expresses his or her faith in a particular religion. And what if a student from a minority viewpoint wants to address the “limited public forum”? The legislation doesn’t allow for viewpoint discrimination, but would schools honor that provision? If so, how will those speeches from minorities be received by the student body?
The bill even outlines a “model policy” with a suggested list of “ideal” student speakers for the forum, including members of the student council and the captain of the football team. As The Jackson (Tenn.) Sun said in an editorial condemning the measure, “Excuse us, but what about the rest of the student body and representatives from other sports, including female athletes?
The stated intent of this legislation is to prevent “religious discrimination,” and in another “model policy,” it suggests that schools grant immunity to students who express their religious views in homework, artwork or other assignments.
This isn’t really about preventing students from being “punished” because they mentioned Jesus in an essay that wasn’t read by anyone besides the teacher who assigned it. Rather, it is yet another constitutionally suspect attempt to sneak prayer and preaching into schools, which is why Americans United wrote to two Tennessee legislative committees and asked them not to approve the bill.
In a letter to the Senate panel, Americans United State Legislative Counsel Amanda Rolat said: “This bill is a solution in search of a problem—the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Tennessee Constitution clearly protect students’ rights to engage in voluntary, student-initiated religious expression before, during, or after the school day. Instead of providing additional protection for religious expression, this bill would allow for religious coercion in public schools.”
Unfortunately this proposal has been approved by both the House and Senate education committees. Hopefully when the bill is being considered by the full House and Senate, members will heed Rep. Montgomery’s words, rather than his action.