A Republican-sponsored bill intended to strengthen protections for Nevada public school students’ religious activities met stiff opposition during a hearing Monday.
Assemblyman Jim Wheeler and several other Republicans sponsored AB 120, which would codify rights given to students regarding school prayer and religious organizing. The Assembly Committee on Education held a 90-minute hearing on the bill Monday afternoon.
It also applies to charter schools and gives students the right to speak about religion, distribute literature and organize prayer groups based on the same rules governing secular extracurricular activities and groups.
Wheeler said the idea behind the bill was to be proactive and codify constitutional protections on religion into state law. He said a number of well-publicized issues from around the country inspired him to write the bill.
“We cannot tell our children that you don’t have the right for something that’s written in the Constitution,” he said during a committee hearing.
Opponents, including American Civil Liberties Union lobbyist Vanessa Spinazola, said the bill was overly broad and didn’t contain restrictions on the time, place and manner of religious activity, which could violate federal law.
Lobbyists for Clark and Washoe county school districts said they were neutral on the bill. They said it merely codified current practices and they were working on an amendment to change the grievance process.
The proposal also outlines a complaint process for students who say their religious rights have been violated. The bill would allow a fine of up to $10,000 to be levied against teachers or school districts that violate the law.
Wheeler acknowledged that the proposal echoed federal law but said he wanted to make sure the state could take action if religious rights were violated.
“It’s prudent for Nevada to step in and do it itself,” he said. “The idea was to head off some of these problems.”