Governor Terry McAuliffe (D-Virginia) vetoed SB 236 a bill passed largely along party lines in the state legislature that would've codified the right for students in public schools to organize prayer groups on school grounds and display religious clothing, jewelry etc. during the school day.
The bill made it clear that students that independently organize prayer groups, such as the "see you at the pole" nationwide prayer event, would be able to do so. It was also designed to protect students in the event they chose to express a religious viewpoint in public forums on school grounds.
In a veto statement McAuliffe said a law in this fashion was not necessary and would instead infringe "on students' right to be free from coercive prayer".
You can read McAuliffe's full veto statement here.
The legislature would have the option to override the veto, but given the largely party line vote during it's initial passage that appears unlikely.
The conservative Family Foundation and the ACLU responded to the McAuliffe veto. Their responses can be found after the jump.
Family Foundation Responds to McAuliffe Veto
RICHMOND–The Family Foundation of Virginia today responded to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s veto of SB 236, legislation that would protect the free speech rights of public school students.
“It’s unfortunate that Governor McAuliffe somehow finds middle and high school kids simply talking about their faith threatening,” said Victoria Cobb, President of The Family Foundation of Virginia. “Students in Virginia should not be discriminated against simply for voicing their faith in a graduation speech or during debate class. That’s not tolerance or equality. We hope that common sense will prevail and that the General Assembly will override this veto.”
Based on existing law in two states that have not been challenged in the courts, SB 236, patroned by state Senator Bill Carrico (R-40, Galax), would create “limited public forums” at certain public school events. Limited public forums restrict the schools from censoring subject matter simply because it is from a faith perspective. The schools can still “limit” the speech to the matter at hand; for example, a graduation speech still has to be about graduating, but it can contain statements about the importance of faith.
The bill also protects students’ rights to organize prayer groups, have events such as “see you at the pole” gatherings and wear clothing with religious expressions.
In recent weeks, nearly 2,000 citizens have contacted the Governor’s office through email or phone calls to urge him to sign this important proposal.
“A student in our public schools shouldn’t be treated as a second class citizen simply because their viewpoint is motivated by their faith, regardless of what faith perspective they have,” added Cobb. “It is tragic that in the birthplace of religious freedom, Governor McAuliffe has chosen to listen to the ACLU and has trampled on the right of Virginia’s religious students who simply want to express their beliefs.”
ACLU of Virginia Applauds Governor McAuliffe's Veto of Senate Bill 236
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - April 4 - Today, Governor McAuliffe vetoed Senate Bill 236, a bill that would have allowed unconstitutional religious speech at or imposed an unworkable burden on Virginia's public schools. By requiring that schools create a so-called "limited public forum" at every school event, the bill would have compelled schools to sponsor student prayer at official school events where students (and other members of the school community) are a captive audience, such as graduations, assemblies, and sporting events.
"The U.S. Constitution, Constitution of Virginia, and federal and state law already protect the right of all students individually to engage freely in voluntary prayer and express religious viewpoints on school grounds and in their school work - both activities that the ACLU of Virginia has and will continue to defend vigorously," said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. "While adding nothing to the existing protections, however, this legislation would have invited unconstitutional school sponsored religious speech resulting in religious coercion in a limitless range of school settings, including prayers over the loudspeaker at football games and Bible verses recited during morning announcements. This legislation would have authorized the government to pick sides on the question of religion - a thoroughly un-American and unconstitutional proposition."
Senate Bill 236 would have required schools to create a "limited public forum" at every school event that has a student speaker. The idea comes from U.S. Supreme Court cases saying that when the government makes a "forum" available to a broad range of speakers, nothing those speakers say may be attributed to the government and no speaker can be excluded because of the content of their communications. For example, if a university makes funding available for all student magazines, it is not unconstitutional to fund a student magazine with a religious viewpoint, and it would be unconstitutional to deny funding to any particular student magazine based on its editorial content.
"It makes no sense to apply the notion of 'limited public forum' to graduations, assemblies, and other school events," said Gastañaga. "In order to create such a forum, the school would have to open the event to anyone who wished to speak. A school cannot select just one student, such as the class valedictorian, and still be in compliance with the 'limited public forum' doctrine. In fact, a true application of the 'limited public forum' doctrine would transform graduations, assemblies, and other events into free-for-alls for student expression, and would impose an administrative nightmare on schools every time they want to hold such an event. Thus, from both a constitutional and practical standpoint, the Governor had no choice but to veto this legislation."