A controversial bill that is designed to protect public school students who pray or express their religious views has stirred debate and disapproval in its first hearing in the Nevada legislature.
Assembly Bill 120 would protect all public school students who express their views and opinions only "under the same circumstances as each pupil is allowed to speak or otherwise express a viewpoint on a nonreligious matter."
"I believe this bill pushes the Christian position, which I do, but not in school," said a priest, testifying before the Assembly Committee on Education at the first hearing.
The proposed bill would also provide a complaint process for public school students who their inalienable right to religious expression was violated. According to Reno Gazette-Journal, the process will begin with an appeal to the principal and work its way up to the local school board, if necessary. Students may be awarded up to $10,000 in a lawsuit if they are still unsatisfied with the ruling.
"The lawsuits — I'm afraid — will pile on," said Assemblywoman Amber Joiner, a Democrat from Reno, who feels families will look to abuse the potential payout.
The U.S. Constitution already "prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, (or) impeding the free exercise of religion," but bill creator Jim Wheeler, a Republican from Minden, said that hasn't been enough in many schools across the nation.
"We will guarantee the rights of our citizens," he said. "And there will be actual detrimental things that happen to you if you don't guarantee these rights."
"I really didn't think it would be this controversial," said Wheeler, arguing that the bill wouldn't silence any religious beliefs or force any students' religion on others, as claimed, but give students the right to practice their religion without "disturbing" the school or other students. "It's pretty basic. It's a right already guaranteed in our Constitution."
Vanessa Spinazola, legislative and advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, has voiced her strong opinion against the bill, explaining that it is essentially a “state sponsorship of religion."
"Right now, the schools are very hands off," she said, noting that students can participate in religious groups before and after school, pray during those times and debate religion during recess. As it currently stands, there are no specific time, place or manner restrictions written in the bill which worries Spinazola as to where school employees would draw the line.
This bill has provoked questions about the purpose of a public education in addition to the separation of church and state. Wheeler contends that his bill will only further protect the rights of students.
"We heard a lot about how this is a bad bill," said Wheeler, asserting that the bill's value is to protect students' First Amendment rights already being trampled in other states.
"It is prevalent across the nation. God bless, Nevada. We've been good about it so far."
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