Public school students may wear clothes or jewelry that express a religious message at school without fear of censure under legislation that senators preliminarily approved following a brief debate June 17.
The legislation also would permit prayer and other religious activities in public schools.
But these religious expressions are permitted only to the same extent that non-religious expressions are permitted.
“This does not allow disruptive expression. This allows parallel expression,” said Sen. John Huppenthal, the bill’s author.
Huppenthal, chairman of the Senate Education Accountability and Reform Committee, sketched a scenario in which a teacher allows students to read from any material they wish. If one student pulls out a comic book and is allowed to read from it, another student who pulls out a Bible or the Koran should also be allowed to read from them, according to the lawmaker.
What about T-shirts that express a specific message, like one that states “homosexuality is a sin”?
They went over such cases, the senator said.
“Those kinds of things would not be allowed under this legislation,” he said.
But suppose the school allows one student to wear a T-shirt with a peace symbol on it. Another student should be allowed to wear a T-shirt with a cross on it, Huppenthal said.
If there is a uniform policy in the school, however, a student wearing a T-shirt with a cross symbol on it would not be allowed to do so, he said.
“The issue is you cannot discriminate against religious expression when you allow parallel expression,” the Chandler Republican said.
S1393 would prohibit public educational institutions from discriminating against students or parents based on any religious viewpoint or expression.
During a brief floor debate, Sen. Paula Aboud, a Democrat from Tucson, offered an amendment to expand the legislation by adding race, gender identity and sexual orientation to the categories of expressions protected by the bill.
But the amendment was defeated.
“Once again, this Republican Legislature is carving out a little niche for their little groups instead of prohibiting discrimination against everybody,” Aboud told the ~Arizona Capitol Times~.
The full Senate is next in line to vote on the bill.
Also under the bill, public educational institutions are prohibited from penalizing or rewarding a student for the religious content or viewpoint expressed in coursework. Instead, the bill requires that an assignment that expresses a religious viewpoint to be evaluated based on “ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance.”
S1393 states that the act should not be construed as authorizing the state or its political subdivisions to mandate participation in prayer or other religious activities; limiting public schools’ ability to maintain order and discipline on the campus or to ensure the safety of students, employees and visitors; or limiting schools’ ability to adopt and enforce policies on student speech — as long as the policies adopted do not violate students’ rights under the state’s Constitution and laws.
It also should not be construed as limiting schools’ ability to adopt and enforce policies prohibiting students from wearing clothes, jewelry or accessories that intend to convey affiliation with a criminal street gang.
The bill further prohibits a student or a parent from initiating legal action to enforce the legislation’s provisions until certain conditions are met, such as the filing of a written complaint alleging the violation.