TOPEKA — Rep. Renee Erickson (R-Wichita) was told to leave her religious beliefs "at the door" or to "find something else to do" during her time as a school principal at Brooks Middle School in Wichita. Because of that, Erickson says that students and faculty who want to express their religion in public schools should have the right to do so under the First Amendment, as long as they are not pushing it on anybody else.
Erickson testified last Thursday before the House Education Committee in support of House Bill 2288, which would allow faculty to take part in prayer led by students, as well as to allow students organize prayer groups and religious clubs and wear religious clothing.
She said that it's unfortunate that the bill is needed, but it's important to protect academic freedom which is derived from the First Amendment.
"House Bill 2288 simply reaffirms and solidifies students' and school employees' constitutional right to free speech," Erickson said.
Brittany Jones, director of advocacy for the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas in Topeka, recounted instances in which educators and coaches were reprimanded for engaging in religious expression, even when asked to join in on student-led prayer after school hours and off school grounds. She said this bill will fix the current gray area of student law.
"No authority has ruled on this issue in Kansas, leaving legislature an open door to provide clarification," Jones said.
She also said it would be effective in preventing lawsuits against public schools. Yet other legislators, such as Rep. Stephanie Clayton (D-Leawood), believe it will do the opposite.
"This looks like it opens it up to a bag of worms," Clayton said. "So, I've got concerns."
She asked Jones if the bill would also apply to non-mainstream religions, such as Satan worshipers or even followers of the Church of the Spaghetti Monster.
Others, such as Kansas Association of School Boards Advocacy Specialist Leah Filter and lobbyist Mark Desetti from the Kansas National Education Association in Topeka, said that actions of authority figures influence students too much.
"Parents are in charge of their children's religious beliefs," Desetti said. "Educators don't have the right in any way to usurp the rights of parents to choose their children's moral or religious beliefs."
He said that students look to teachers as role models, and that their actions should only model learning and respect in the classroom.
Filter agreed with Desetti, and said that there are already educational institutions that allow for expression of faith.
"If we really want to have prayer in schools, we have religious schools that our children can attend," Filter said.
Erickson ended the meeting by finding common ground with Filter and Desetti on the idea that educators should not be pushing ideas onto students.
Grant DeMars is a University of Kansas senior from Salina majoring in journalism.