A controversial new law designed to protect and promote a student’s right to free speech has school districts scrambling to comply by September 1.
The Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act (RVAA) was coauthored by State Representatives Charlie Howard and Warren Chisum and received overwhelming bipartisan approval in the House and Senate during the last legislative session.
The law requires districts to adopt a policy for students to voluntarily express their views on religious topics in a “limited public forum for student speakers at all school events at which a student is to publicly speak.”
Meaning, the district is to allow student volunteers to speak at athletic events, pep rallies, school assemblies, morning announcements and graduation ceremonies or any other event the district deems appropriate as long as the student’s subject is related to the purpose of the event. The bill also states the student cannot use vulgar or obscene language.
And, the district will precede the student’s views with a disclaimer disconnecting the school’s views from the student’s.
The bill also states students may express their religious beliefs in homework, class work and art work or any other written or oral assignment free from discrimination based on religious content.
But, adopting and implementing a policy is causing problems for school districts across the state.
Stephenville Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Darrell Floyd said Stephenville chose to adopt a policy written by their lawyers rather than adopt the recommended model policy included in the bill.
“SISD, on advice of legal counsel, took the TASB (Texas Association of School Boards) alternate policy and revised it slightly in order to appropriately comply with the spirit of the law while ensuring a smooth day-to-day operation of its schools,” Floyd said.
It’s a move that State Representative Sid Miller believes is a mistake.
Miller said he is in favor of districts adopting the state’s model policy included in the bill because he believes school districts “are going to get sued - regardless - on the basis of separation of church and state.”
Miller said if the state model is adopted in good faith then Texas has an obligation to defend schools in court should the need arise.
According to Miller, if a district adopts any other policy such as the TASB alternate model or chooses to draft their own, the district will be defending themselves in court at their own expense.
Miller said the law doesn’t “open any new doors,” but reaffirms the constitutional right of freedom of speech and guarantees that schools leave those avenues open. He stated that some schools have carried the separation of church and state too far and the bill was written in response to that problem.
In a letter written to superintendents and school boards, the authors of the bill warn school districts against adopting any policy other than the policy included in the bill but recognizes each district’s right to do so.
In particular, the letter advises against adopting the TASB alternate policy stating, “The TASB policy significantly deviates from RVAA’s model policy.”
Howard and Chisum said the TASB model has added definitions that they believe have the “effect of narrowing and restricting the applicability of RVAA.”
Floyd said school districts must have flexibility in setting board policies that are manageable on a day-to-day basis in school operations.
“There are strong opinions on both sides of this issue, and factions on both sides just waiting to sue school districts regardless of which way they go,” Floyd said. “That is a no-win situation.”
In an article in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, State Representative Vicki Truitt apologized to Carroll school district officials, saying that the intent of the lawmakers was not to create problems.
She is quoted in the article as saying, “In the Legislature, we often don’t get it right the first time,” and said she believes the issue will be revisited in the next session.
She also said the law if far from perfect.
Floyd agrees with Truitt’s assessment of the situation and said, “I think the end result of this new legislation was much broader than the overall legislative body intended it be.”