RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — The Governor vetoed a student religious expression bill on Friday that he said could lead to coercive prayer in Virginia public schools.
Senate Bill 236, sponsored by state Senator Charles Carrico (R-Grayson County), would protect students’ freedom of religious expression by writing it into Virginia’s state code.
The legislation would give students the codified right to pray at school or school events, organize prayer groups or religious clubs and events, wear clothing with religious meaning, and talk about their religious views at school events.
But in his veto statement, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said the state law is unnecessary because state policy and the federal Equal Access Act already protect students’ religious expression.
“Further, the federal Equal Access Act already requires high schools to allow students’ religious clubs the same privileges afforded to secular clubs.
“Importantly, the Guidelines Concerning Religious Activity in the Public Schools, developed by the state board of Education and the Office of the Attorney General, have, since 1995, clearly informed Virginia school divisions of the extensive breadth of students’ freedom of religious expression, including choice of religious literature, discussion of religious themes with other willing students, voluntary student prayer, and other non-disruptive expressions of belief, both verbal and as expressed through attire or other personal effects.”
But that isn’t McAuliffe’s only reason for his opposition, which he has expressed even before the bill was passed by the General Assembly. He said the legislation would actually cause situations of “coercive prayer and religious messaging at both voluntary and required school events.”
The Governor also said the bill could subject schools to “extensive and costly litigation” and keep them from providing students with quality education.
The House of Delegates and Virginia Senate can override McAuliffe’s veto with a two-thirds vote when they reconvene at the end of April.