Ed Colbert says the Houston Independent School District wouldn't let him host a Catholic Bible study group on school grounds after school hours because of his religious beliefs.
In response to concerns like these, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, has filed a bill that would codify in Texas law existing U.S. Supreme Court rulings that ensure that religious groups have the same rights to hold meetings at public school facilities as nonreligious organizations.
“The bill adds a little extra layer of religious liberty,” Krause said.
Under House Bill 1525, known as “The Religious Equal Access Act,” if a public school district allows noncurricular community groups not organized by students to meet during "noninstructional" time, the same access would be allowed to religious organizations. Krause said the bill would protect groups that may have been denied access to facilities because of the religious nature of their organization.
“The issue is really a lack of legislation saying something either way,” Colbert said.
Colbert, who lives in Houston, said new legislation would make it easier for both religious and nonreligious organizations to use public school facilities for meetings and community events — creating a level playing field.
“If an atheist believes he is speaking the truth and wants to rid the world of superstition, he should compete in the marketplace of ideas,” he said.
Krause, a lawyer, founded a Texas office of Liberty Counsel, a legal and educational organization dedicated to “advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family since 1989, by providing pro bono assistance and representation on these and related topics.”
He said in a statement that through his pro bono work, he witnessed many people who experienced “viewpoint discrimination” while trying to access public facilities. He called it an infringement on First Amendment rights of free speech. Current laws prohibiting viewpoint discrimination are “crystal clear,” Krause said, but a lack of knowledge could be why some school districts deny religious organizations access to facilities.
“We need to put all school districts and everyone on notice that [viewpoint discrimination] is something you cannot do,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court rulings that Krause cites in the bill are Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District and Good News Club v. Milford Central School. Both cases set precedents for religious groups and their rights regarding free speech on government property.
In the 1993 decision in Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, the court decided that government could not limit free speech because of a specific viewpoint. The court found in the 2003 case Good News Club v. Milord Central School that if the government has a “limited public forum,” it could limit the speech there to certain topics, but it could not discriminate against speech because of the viewpoint, including religious perspectives.
Zachary Moore, coordinator for the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, an umbrella organization for several Texas atheist groups, said he hasn’t seen any evidence of religious groups being denied access to the same use of school facilities as nonreligious groups, and doesn’t see a need for reinforcing current laws.
Although Moore said he doesn’t see a need for additional laws to protect religious organizations, he said that Krause's legislation would help protect free speech rights of the secular movement, too.
“[Krause] is doing our work for us,” he said.