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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Bill aims to protect religious freedom at island’s public schools

Rep. Deborah Soto Arroyo

By The Star Staff

Lawmakers Deborah Soto Arroyo, Wilson Román López, Jorge “Georgie” Navarro Suárez and Luis Raúl Torres have introduced a measure in the island House of Representatives to establish the “Law on Religious Freedom for Students, Parents or Guardians and School Personnel in Schools of the Public Education System.”

Pastor Julio Cruz, of the Cristo Rompe las Cadenas Ministry, petitioned the lawmakers for the measure, House Bill (HB) 1951, which seeks to protect Education Department staff and students from attempts to prevent them from practicing their religion.

The legislators insisted that HB 1951 rests on constitutional and statutory parameters, both federal and local.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental right of vital importance for developing a just society in harmony with human beings,” the legislators said in a joint document. “Likewise, and since religious freedom is a fundamental right enshrined in the federal and state constitutions, it includes the right of all citizens to practice their religion freely and integrates their right to manifest their religious beliefs.”

The bipartisan measure provides that the Education Department cannot discriminate against a student, parent or school staff for reasons of offering a religious point of view or expression in a school. The agency would treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint in the same manner as it would treat another student’s voluntary expression of a secular viewpoint.

In addition, it allows students to express their religious beliefs in schoolwork, works of art and literature, and other written and oral tasks without discrimination. A student’s classroom tasks and assignments would be evaluated, regardless of their religious content, according to the academic parameters contemplated by the curriculum and school year requirements.

Likewise, the measure would allow students to wear clothing, accessories, and garments that display a religious message or symbol in the same way and manner that other students are permitted to wear clothing, accessories, and garments that display secular letters or symbols.

Finally, the proposed law states that a student can pray, voluntarily reflect or participate in religious activities or expressions before, during and after the school day, in the same way and manner that another student can participate in school activities or perform secular modes of expression.

“Freedom of expression, which includes religious expression, covers the teaching and non-teaching staff of the Department of Education, provided that this is as an individual citizen, not as an employee of the Department or speaking on its behalf, and that it is not mediated by some coercion toward students so that they adopt the expressions as their own or are penalized for not accepting them,” the lawmakers said. “This freedom of expression extends to teachers and students, who do not lose their constitutional rights of freedom of expression inside the school gates, complying with the school regulations.”

The measure ensures that no one is subject to coercion that could undermine their freedom to have a religion or convictions, they added.

“Religious freedom is a right protected at the local, federal, and international levels, both by constitutional and statutory texts and international declarations,” the legislators said. “Religious freedom is a fundamental right of vital importance for developing a society that is just and in harmony with human beings.”

The proposed law follows last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision Kennedy vs. Bremerton, which held that a public school district could not stop a football coach from praying on the 50-yard line after games. The court ruled that such prayer was a personal religious observance and that preventing someone from engaging in such a practice violated the First Amendment’s protections for free speech and the free exercise of religion.

As a result of the Supreme Court ruling, the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidelines that say: “Teachers, school administrators, and other school employees may not encourage or discourage private prayer or other religious activity.” It goes on to say the U.S. Constitution allows school employees themselves to engage in private prayer during the workday. But it warns that they may not “compel, coerce, persuade, or encourage students to join in the employee’s prayer or other religious activity.”

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