Religious Liberty law may have unintended consequences

March 20, 2013 10:23:52 AM

Sarah Fowler - [email protected]


Last week, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed legislation designed to ensure religious liberties in the state's schools. While widely lauded by many in conservative Christian camps, others believe the legislation's impact may result in some unintended consequences that go far beyond assuring that students can reference religion over the school intercom, at sporting events or at graduation ceremonies. 


Signed Thursday, Senate Bill 2633 outlines numerous key points where students are allowed to express their religious freedom of speech. Known as the Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013, the law states "Students in public schools may pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression." 


However, Mississippi State University professor Dr. Mark Goodman said that while the law not only allows students to exercise their First Amendment rights, it also leaves school officials with very little control over student expression.  


"What the hell were these guys thinking?" asked Goodman. "They were trying to bring prayer back into school and they did that, but the law goes much further, granting students almost total First Amendment rights." 


"As I read the law, a student could wear a swastika and describe it as a religious object and it would violate the law for the school district to require the student to remove it." 


Goodman said the Supreme Court, through numerous cases, has limited First Amendment rights of students. The Mississippi law removes those limitations, Goodman said, and the implications are likely to go far beyond the intentions of those who supported the legislation. 


"Theoretically, a student school commencement speaker could lay down a prayer shawl and pray to Mecca and that would be protected by this Mississippi law," Goodman said. 


State Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, has a different interpretation. However, they both agree the bill was designed to protect the religious freedom of students. 


"Even though this is a senate bill, we had a House bill just like it," Chism said. "What it does is quantify what we think the current United States Supreme Court law about religion in school says. 


"Right now, we've got a lot of students that would like to do something in school like write a term paper on some religious thing, would like to express their Christian faith, pray around the flag pole, maybe have a Christian club in school. What this particular bill did was go through item by item of what we think the current law is and put it into the statute so a school board can look at the law and do whatever this law says." 


Goodman claims that before Gov. Bryant signed SB 2633, the burden of proof was on the student to prove their religious views and opinions did not violate the prayer in school law. For example, before a valedictorian gave his or her commencement speech, they would often have to give their speech to school officials for approval. Now, Goodman said the burden of proof has shifted from the student to school officials.  


"The law essentially guarantees students full First Amendment rights as long as their speech is not lewd, obscene or inappropriate. School districts cannot require school prayer nor can they punish whatever speech the student chooses to practice. It is the most liberal example of student rights, free speech rights, that I've ever seen," Goodman said.  


While Goodman sees the law as the beginning of questionable territory, conservative groups are praising Bryant's efforts.  


Jeff Matter, general counsel for the Liberty Institute, said he applauds the governor and the state of Mississippi for such a bold bill.  


"We think that that bill is a good bill. It is very similar to the law that Texas has that protects private students' speech. It makes clear that when students are engaged in their own private speech that the government cannot censor them. We applaud the state of Mississippi," Matter said. 


Chism agrees and said he sees the bill as a new set of guidelines that school districts can reference when there is a question about religious freedoms.  


"I think it's very important because school districts want to be operating within the law. They probably violate religious children's rights by not allowing them to do some of the things and this would give them the reassurance that says it's OK," he said.  


Goodman disagrees and is strong in his belief that the bill will open the flood gates.  


"This law is the most liberal law in the nation in terms of protecting the First Amendment rights of students. It almost prevents school districts from interfering with any student's First Amendment activities. The law could even be interpreted to make dress codes and school uniforms illegal because it would violate the student's right to expression and religion." 


Matter disagrees.  


"What's great about America is the First Amendment protects people of all faiths and people of no faiths," he said.

Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.