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Terry McAuliffe to veto bill about religious expression in schools

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Posted: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 1:07 am

RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe will veto a bill aimed at protecting the rights of students to express religious viewpoints on public school grounds if the legislation reaches his desk, his office said Monday.

A McAuliffe spokesman outlined the governor’s opposition to the bill after it cleared a House of Delegates committee Monday morning. The legislation, which passed the Senate last month, should come up for a vote in the full House later this week.

“He’s very concerned about the constitutionality of the bill, but he’s also concerned about the unintended consequences,” McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson County, said the veto threat is premature.

“I would love to know what his reasons are, to tell the media and tell everyone else he’s going to veto it and not even talk to me about it,” Carrico said.

“As the Bible calls a double-minded man, if he’s going to veto a freedom of expression for students in school on religious viewpoints, yet his first executive order he signs is a freedom for sexual orientation, [for] bisexual people to express themselves, I find a little double standard there,” Carrico said.

McAuliffe’s first executive order, signed on the day of his inauguration, extends state government nondiscrimination policies to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.

The House Education Committee advanced Carrico’s bill (SB 236) Monday on a 12-10 vote, despite warnings from representatives of Virginia school boards and school superintendents that the measure will invite lawsuits. Three Republicans, including Joseph Yost of Pearisburg, joined the committee’s seven Democrats in opposing the bill.

The Senate passed the bill last month on a largely party-line vote of 20-18. The bill passed before special elections won by two Democratic senators were decided. The Senate, now evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, likely would sustain McAuliffe’s veto.

Carrico’s bill would require every Virginia school division to adopt a policy permitting student speakers to express religious viewpoints at any school event in which students are allowed to publicly speak. Those events would be treated as “limited public forums.” Principals would be required to provide disclaimers to underscore that school divisions don’t endorse the speakers’ religious views.

The General Assembly passed legislation in 2008 prohibiting schools from discriminating against students’ “voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint” in class assignments. Carrico has said that his bill goes further by allowing religious expressions in a “limited public forum” and allowing school systems to adopt policies to protect them from litigation.

Opponents argued that the bill would create a patchwork of inconsistent policies and make lawsuits more likely.

A similar House-sponsored bill was thwarted earlier this month by a subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee. Carrico’s bill was not vetted by the courts committee in either house of the General Assembly. Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said Carrico’s bill should have been reviewed by lawyers on the courts committee before going to the full House.

“First Amendment law is not something that the Education Committee should be codifying,” McClellan said.

On an unrecorded voice vote, the education panel defeated a motion to send the bill to the Courts of Justice Committee.

The bill’s supporters include Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William County, who introduced the similar bill that failed to get through the House Courts of Justice subcommittee.

“I hope we will take a stand and re-establish the First Amendment,” Lingamfelter said before the Education Committee’s vote.

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