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Editorial: Utah needs no new law to protect students' religious liberty

Published October 21, 2013 11:32 am

Proposed law unnecessary
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Convincing people that you have come to rescue them from threats that do not exist is a good way to raise campaign funds or win votes in a neighborhood caucus. But it is a lousy way to govern.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, isn't claiming that the religious rights of Utah public school students are really under threat. But he still wants to waste the Legislature's time and taxpayers' money by pursuing a bill that would purport to give public school students several rights that nobody questions and one that could create some unnecessary woes.

The lawmaker says his as-yet undrafted bill, soon to appear in the file titled "Religious Freedom for Students," is patterned after Mississippi's Student Religious Liberties Act. Which is, in turn, if by happenstance, mostly patterned after a set of guidelines the federal government has been promoting as far back as 1998.

Despite what some religious leaders may want you to believe, the religious rights of public school students have never been excluded from our educational institutions, except by the occasional fearful teacher or clueless bureaucrat who didn't get the memo.

Under federal policy, as guided and interpreted by various U.S. Supreme Court rulings, individual public school students unquestionably have the right to follow any religion they wish, use religious topics as the basis for class assignments, promote religious ideas on their clothing, distribute literature or just share the good news at the lunch table, as long as they do not violate religiously neutral rules established to keep the school day focused on instruction and protect any student from being harassed.

Those protections are what most of the Mississippi law — and Weiler's bill — would redundantly guarantee. Where both stray onto thin ice is a section that would give students or visitors the ability to pray or otherwise promote their beliefs over a school public announcement system, at sporting events or at such ceremonies as graduation exercises, as long as there is some disclaimer that the speaker is speaking as an individual, not as an official representative or spokesman for the school.

Such expositions, disclaimers or not, dance far too close to the line of an official establishment of religion, unless equal time is given to followers of various non-Christian, pagan and even satirical faiths, such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Is that what we want?

The 2014 session of the Utah Legislature, like all sessions of the Utah Legislature, will be busy and pressed for time. Better that Sen. Weiler drop this idea now.