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Bill would clarify pupils' religious rights

February 24, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

Bill's aim to attract, retain doctors locally

ANNAPOLIS -- John Wilson frequently fields questions from Clear Spring High School students about the limits of religious expression in school.

"They ask me, 'Am I allowed to pray at lunch?'" said Wilson, a health and physical education teacher at the school.

Wilson also is the adviser for the school's chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

"I tell them, 'Yes, you can pray at lunch,'" Wilson said. "I don't think students know about what they can do."

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A bill being considered by lawmakers in Maryland's General Assembly seeks to clarify the rules of religious expression in public schools. The legislation, sponsored by Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, emphasizes that students are allowed to address religion in school assignments and should not be penalized or rewarded for doing so. It also states that student addresses can include religious messages and that all religious clubs should be granted equal access to school facilities.

Under the bill, students would be allowed to organize religious gatherings, which would be given the same consideration as nonreligious gatherings.

In all cases, Serafini said the bill applies to all religions, and even to those who consider themselves non-religious.

Serafini's bill will be heard March 4 before the House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee. The legislation is co-sponsored by Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, and Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, and several others.

Serafini said the bill will clarify religious boundaries in the state's public schools, helping students and teachers. It also would help school districts avoid costly legal action if a student or teacher were to sue the district for infringing on that person's right to freedom of religion.

The Washington County Public Schools' student handbook states, "Students shall be free to express their religious views, concepts and/or beliefs as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others, or disturb the educational process."

For example, Wilson tells students they are free to say a prayer at lunch, but they cannot pressure their peers to participate.

Serafini's bill is identical to one adopted by state lawmakers in Texas several years ago, and has been reviewed by lawyers who say it is constitutional, he said.

There will be critics who fear his bill will bring schools closer to reinstating prayer in the classroom, but Serafini said that is not the intent of the bill. If offers no additional rights to students and only clarifies the rights they currently have.

"I would never want to see any example of a student's constitutional right to freedom of expression (being infringed upon)," Shank said. "Students have a constitutional right to express their beliefs."

He said the bill would be a way to ensure those rights are respected consistently statewide.

Current practice



Wilson said that the 20 students involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes organization at Clear Spring High meet either before or after school, not during school hours.

"Basically, we help fulfill the spiritual needs and needs in general of the student population," he said.

Students talk about current events and the lessons the Bible teaches about those events.

"What does the Bible say about handling your money? Handling the economy? What does the Bible say about bullying? We talk about issues these teens are facing, but we also include the biblical background on it," Wilson said.

The club organizes an alcohol- and drug-free party for those looking for something do after prom, and each year it puts together the "See You at the Pole" event. Students and staff who participate meet at the school's flagpole to pray and worship before school.

Clear Spring's participation is part of a national program, and several Washington County Public Schools coordinated similar events last year.

North Hagerstown High School's Fellowship of Christian Athletes group organized a Fields of Faith event on the school's football field in 2007 that drew about 100 people for a night of fellowship and praise. The year before, the event was held at South Hagerstown High.

"They don't know that they are allowed to do a lot of these things," Wilson said.

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