Brownwood school trustees have decided to wait as long as possible to choose between two policy options designed to ensure freedom of students’ religious expression, hoping that some legal clarity will materialize before classes begin Aug. 27.
School districts are required under a state law known as the Religious Liberties/Religious Viewpoints Anti-discrimination Act, to adopt either the model policy included in the legislation or its own provision that complies with the requirements of the act.
Dr. Sue Jones, Brownwood superintendent, said the three legal firms the school district uses in varying situations offered conflicting advice.
“There’s quite a bit of discrepancy in what they recommend,” Jones said. “It appears the district has a choice, but neither choice is very good.”
Some attorneys believe the model policy included in the legislation violates federal law and is possibly unconstitutional. Meanwhile, other attorneys advise that an alternative policy offered by the Texas Association of School Boards — the usual source of school district policies — does not conform to new state law.
The law was passed by the Texas Legislature this spring, and signed by Gov. Rick Perry in June. The governor held a ceremonial signing of the bill Tuesday.
“There will be law suits, you can count on that,” Brownwood school trustee Dr. Justin Murphy said as school board members pondered their choice Monday night.
Board members decided to delay any vote, and instead schedule a noon meeting on Friday, Aug. 24, the last weekday before classes begin Monday, Aug. 27, so the they can consider adopting a policy as required by the law.
“We will have the latest information, but no guarantee of any new information,” Jones told the board.
Jones explained that the legislation requires schools to treat a student’s voluntary religious expression — for example, in research topics or other class work — as it would a secular subject. It also ensures freedom of association, so that prayer groups can be organized in the same manner as others on campus.
The law, and its model policy, provides a complicated procedure on how students are selected to speak at functions like graduation, Jones said.
“We’ve not had a problem with this,” Jones said regarding previous ways student speakers have been chosen.
The law also requires certain disclaimers at functions at which students speak.
Trustee Mark Bradshaw proposed delaying any decision.
“I agree with Mark, and I’d like to buy as much time as we can,” trustee John Nickols said Monday night. “It can’t get any murkier than this.”
Jones said most policies by the state are provided by the Texas Association of School Boards, but the alternative policy it offers on this law came with the unusual recommendation that districts consult their own legal counsels regarding the matter.
Some of the provisions included in the model policy included in the legislation are as follows:
Student speakers will introduce football games, and make opening announcements during the school day and other events to be designated by the district. Students who are eligible to speak include those in the top two grades of the school who are student council officers, class officers in the school’s highest grade, football team captains and students in other positions of honor designated by the district. Students who meet those criteria and volunteer to speak publicly will have their names drawn randomly and assigned to speak at one of the events. A student must stay on the subject of the event and may not engage in obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd or indecent speech. The district will state orally or in writing that the district does not endorse the student’s speech.
The TASB option differs by making a provision for a weekly forum for student speakers, who will introduce pledges and a required moment of silence. Football games are not mentioned. It also defines the phrase “to publicly speak” as addressing an audience at a school event using the students’ own words that have not been approved in advance. It also excludes as public forums any situation at which other students are making only brief introductions or announcements.
Supporters of the model policy say the TASB policy would circumvent the law merely by having all speeches approved. Others believe the model policy is an attempt to override the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Doe vs. Santa Fe ISD, which held that the Texas school district’s policy of student-led prayers at football games is unconstitutional.