A measure billed to protect religious student expressions in Oklahoma's public schools was criticized Thursday as being nothing more than a political statement.
The House of Representatives voted 79-13 to pass House Bill 1940. It now goes to the Senate.
HB 1940 would allow school districts to adopt policies allowing students to deliver religious viewpoints and inspirational messages at student assemblies. It is similar to a measure passed in 2008, but vetoed by then-Gov. Brad Henry.
Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw, the bill's author, said it would require public schools to allow and protect religious student expression and to allow students to express religious beliefs in homework, art and other assignments. The bill, modeled after a Texas law, would require school districts to treat the voluntary student expressions of a religious viewpoint the same as voluntary student expressions of a secular viewpoint.
Religious group access
It also would require school districts to adopt a “Model Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Policy.” The bill also would require schools to provide the same access to school buildings for religious groups as it does for other student groups and to allow students to organize prayer groups.
Rep. Curtis McDaniel, a former high school principal, said students can pray and talk about God in public schools now.
“So what are we doing here?” asked McDaniel, D-Smithville. “We're making a political statement.”
Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell, said the bill is not about the right to pray in school.
“This really ensures the school district doesn't discriminate against religious viewpoints,” he said.
The measure states the attorney general's office will defend school districts that accept the proposed policy. Henry, a Democrat, vetoed a similar measure because he said he was concerned schools could be forced to provide equal time to fringe organizations masquerading as religions and advocate behaviors, such as drug abuse or hate speech, that are dangerous or offensive to students and the public.