A bill filed Monday in the Georgia General Assembly would address religious speech and expression in public schools for both students and faculty.
State Sen. Michael Williams, R-Cumming, sponsored Senate Bill 361, which would be called the Coach Small Religious Protection Act.
The bill’s namesake is a reference to East Coweta High School football coach John Small, who received complaints from the Freedom from Religion Foundation regarding pregame prayer.
“Students, faculty and staff — they don’t give up, they don’t lose their First Amendment rights the moment they walk on campus. I think it’s important, especially under the circumstances we find ourselves,” said Williams, who is also a gubernatorial candidate. “Outside organizations coming in and suing school boards for something as simple as a coach participating at the request of students in student-led prayer is absurd. And if it takes passing a law to protect that, then that’s what needs to be done.”
Williams said he wanted to guarantee a prayer club has the same rights and access to school property that the chess club would have.
The bill includes sections on student speakers at graduation and other events.
“The local school system shall treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the local school system treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject and may not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject,” according to the bill.
Regarding faculty during working hours, employees would be able to “permit and be present for student-initiated, student-led religious expression” and participate in such prayer when invited by students “provided that the participation is in the faculty’s or employee’s personal capacity and not as a representative of the school.”
Gainesville City School System Superintendent Jeremy Williams said Wednesday he had not yet familiarized himself with the bill.
“Students are able to express themselves in any way typically as long as it is not a disruption to school. From a staff standpoint, staff are just not able to lead students in prayer or be suggested toward sharing ideals and opinions and philosophies,” Jeremy Williams said.
The American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit in December 2014 along with three anonymous plaintiffs that reside in the Hall County School District.
The AHA raised concerns about Chestatee High School coaches allegedly leading and participating in prayer.
The complaint filed by the group mentioned dozens of alleged instances connecting Hall County schools with expressions of Christian faith. Many instances relate to pictures and messages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram involving religious material.
The case was settled with the school district’s insurance carriers paying $22,500 in legal fees. Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said at the time there would be First Amendment training for staff.
An attempt to reach Schofield Wednesday for comment was unsuccessful.
Schofield said at the time of the lawsuit that the main guidance for the school district on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is a 2003 report “Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.” The report gives a “common sense synopsis,” Schofield said, with how schools must act in terms of adult-student interaction.