House passes school religious liberties bill

February 15, 2013 10:03:52 AM

Carl Smith - [email protected]


Before every Oktibbeha County board meeting convenes, supervisors open each gathering with a word of prayer. 


Board President and District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer says that moment of reflection provides him with the guidance needed to tackle all county business with confidence. Even before a heated county forum on school consolidation Tuesday, board members asked for direction through prayer. 


Supervisors unanimously approved sending letters of support for Legislature bills that rubber stamp public school children's right to express religious beliefs in the classroom, whether through their school work or by joining a faith-based school organization. One of those bills, HB 1112, passed the House floor Wednesday by a 94-20 vote. 


Otherwise known as the Schoolchildren's Religious Liberties Act, the bill also requires school districts to adopt a policy regarding limited public forums and voluntary expression of religious perspectives. 


State Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, is listed as an additional author for the act. Although the bill does not create or define any measure not already established by the U.S. Supreme Court, he says it's important to have these measures clearly established in Mississippi Code. 


"This is a no-brainer," he said. "We want to ensure the rights of every child, especially during off-times. Just because you're in a public school doesn't mean a child's rights end at the road. 


"This bill may run into a stumbling block if it gets sent to the wrong (Senate) committee and if there's a committee chair that doesn't want to bring it up," Chism added, "but if this goes before the floor, it'll pass easily."  


After examining the bill, Starkville School District Superintendent Lewis Hollway agreed the bill simply codifies basic court decisions. Holloway, the son of a Baptist minister, said free religious expression is commonplace in the city school district. 


"We see it all the time in music and art here. We just have to make sure and be very careful that it's not teacher or administration led," he said. "I believe religion is a very personal thing and is the responsibility of the parents." 


Both Trainer and District 5 Supervisor John Montgomery said they believe the simple bill is a common-sense measure for free religious expression. Trainer said the act can be interpreted as a tool of encouragement for more expression. 


"Faith plays a major role in my life. It's something, in my opinion, that you can't dictate what a person can or cannot do with because it's a personal choice," he said. "This bill gives a guarantee that students can express something they may feel reserved about because of sensitivity, and I see that as a great thing." 


"It's definitely a good thing for our school system," Montgomery added. "It's a fair step for both religious freedom and the basic freedom to express yourself."

Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch