Talk About God

August 22, 2007

Wise County Messenger

Brandon Evans

In an attempt to encourage religious expression at public schools, the Texas Legislature passed a new law this year called the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act (RVAA).

Districts throughout the state have scrambled to implement the new law before the school year begins.

“Most school districts do the right thing and let kids exercise their religious freedoms and have prayer meetings,” said State Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford). “But some schools have had the ACLU and other left-wing groups protest such events. This law creates a safe harbor that protects school districts against lawsuits.”

The law requires all school districts to adopt a policy by Sept. 1 that roughly follows the state edict. RVAA is not simple to apply, according to the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB).

“This is not a blanket one-size-fits-all law,” said Barbara Williams, TASB spokesperson. “Districts will all draft their own versions based on the guidelines.

“We’ve been encouraging districts to consult with their attorneys to find a policy that is best for their district.”

TASB created a model for districts to use. Decatur ISD superintendent Gerard Gindt said his district has adopted the TASB model.

According to the policy, the “District shall treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the district treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular viewpoint… and shall not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint.”

The policy allows a student to use “his or her own words” when given a “limited forum” at pep rallies, class officer elections and student council elections.

Gindt said the new policy will probably have little effect on the district. It will only change things at the middle and high school level.

High school Principal Melinda Reeves said the policy will work by giving students two times to volunteer each year. Those volunteers will then be allowed to give introductory speeches at events such as pep rallies. Time limits will apply, holding students to about 30 seconds for their unscripted public forum.

Reeves said this law is different because it allows unscripted speech to occur. In the past, school administrators have always reviewed what the students will say.

Football games already include a moment of silence. Also, when students organize graduation ceremonies, they have sometimes chosen to invoke religion.

The policy does put some limits on student speech however. First, the public forum volunteers must be in one of the two highest grade levels at the school and cannot be under any current disciplinary measures. Also, the speech can’t include language that is obscene, lewd or vulgar; would result in “substantial interference” with the school activity; violates the “property rights, privacy rights, or other rights” of someone; contains defamatory statements; or advocates lawless action.

The law also says students can use religious expression in class assignments and can organize prayer groups and religious clubs before, during and after school and will be given the same access to student facilities as other noncurricular groups.

These are also of little change to the district, Gindt said.

“We’ve allowed students to have ‘prayer around the pole’ here and it has never been an issue before,” Gindt said.

Gindt said the law basically sprang up from a district several years ago that forbade a child to hand out candy canes.

In 2004, Jonathan Morgan, an elementary school student in Plano, tried to hand out pens in the shape of candy canes. The pens also included an explanation of their Christian symbolism. Plano ISD officials said it was against district policy. A lawsuit then followed against the district from several parents.

Gindt said the RVAA “will probably be refined over time as individual cases are interpreted.”