Students in Missouri public schools will have some of the strongest religious freedom protections in the country as a result of legislation signed into law by Governor Jay Nixon. Earlier this month the Governor
signed House Bill 1303, known as the Missouri Student Religious Liberties Act.
House Bill 1303 was sponsored by Representative Elijah Haahr of Springfield. It had been approved by the Missouri House by a vote of 131-16 and by the Missouri Senate by a vote of 30-1. Haahr says the purpose of his legislation is to give school districts clear guidelines as to the scope of the religious free exercise rights of public school students.
Under the new law, school districts are prohibited from discriminating against a student on the basis of religious expression or a religious viewpoint. A student is entitled to share a religious viewpoint to the same degree a secular viewpoint is expressed on an otherwisepermissible subject.
Students are also assured the right to pray or engage in religious activities before, during, and after the school day to the same degree that nonreligious activities or expression are permitted. Such activities may not be disruptive of schedule instructional time or impede access or mobility on the school campus.
The new law makes clear that students are free to organize and participate in prayer groups and religious clubs to the same extent students are permitted to participate in other noncurricular programs and activities. School facilities must be made available for such religious groups in the same manner that those facilities are made available for noncurricular activities of a secular nature.
The Student Religious Liberties Act also protects the free speech rights of students in the classroom setting. Students may share their religious beliefs in homework, artwork, and classroom presentations so long as that expression is relevant to the subject matter at hand. Teachers and school district officials may not penalize a student based on the religious content of their oral or written assignments.
Students would also be assured the right to wear clothing, accessories, and jewelry with religious messages or symbols to the same degree that any nonreligious messages or symbols are permitted. At the same time school officials would retain the authority to take actions necessary to maintain order and discipline on the campus and to protect the safety of students.
The new statute promoted by Representative Haahr builds on the religious liberty constitutional amendment approved by Missouri voters in August of 2012. Amendment 2, often referred to as the Prayer Amendment, provided explicit guarantees in Missouri’s Constitution protecting the religious free exercise rights of Missouri citizens and schoolchildren.
In the school setting, it assured students the right to pray and acknowledge God on a voluntary basis so long as such religious expression was not disruptive andabided within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech. Amendment 2 also stated that “students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work.”
Amendment 2 was endorsed by Missouri voters by an astounding margin of 83 to 17 percent, and won decisive support of a majority of voters in every county in the state and the city of St. Louis as well.
Representative Haahr’s efforts occur against a backdrop of repeated incidents across the country in which school officials seek to squelch religious expression in and out of the classroom. Earlier this year, students at a high school in Potosi were allegedly told that they could not bring their Bibles to school.
Representative Haahr believes, as do we, that most of these episodes are the result of misunderstanding by teachers and principals of how the First Amendment applies in school district settings. School administrators are fed a steady diet of false information by groups likethe ACLU, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
These atheist groups work hard to convince school officials that they have a legal obligation to stifle and suppress any and all religious speech or religious activity in the public schools. To the contrary, federal courts have made clear that students do not shed their free speech rights at the schoolhouse door.
“I don’t believe that most school districts that have these problems intend to overstep the line,” RepresentativeHaahr says. “I think it is just a matter that they don’t know exactly what those lines are, and I would like to provide them with clear guidance.”
We commend Representative Haahr for his outstanding leadership on this issue. We also salute Senator Ryan Silvey of Clay County for steering this bill to passage in the Missouri Senate. We express our thanks to all those legislators who voted for this new law. That includes some lawmakers who opposed Amendment 2, but chose to acknowledge the overwhelming sentiment of the people of Missouri on this issue.
Missouri has always been known as a state with a very strong pro-life and pro-family reputation. It also now takes its place as a leader in the area of religious freedom. Missouri has now reinforced in its own Constitution the First Amemdment right to the free exercise of religion at the highest standard in the most explicit terms possible. Hopefully other states will follow suit.