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North Carolina Senate Advances Bills for Student Expression

RALEIGH, N.C. — Bills protecting organizational rights of student groups and student-led prayer are advancing in the North Carolina Senate.

The Senate Education Committee signed off on two bills Wednesday intended to protect free expression in schools and colleges.

One measure gives student organizations at the state’s public colleges and universities the right to select leaders and govern themselves without interference from administrators, so long as their actions don’t violate state or federal law. Another bill clarifies students’ rights to religious expression as long as they don’t disrupt public schools.

Sen. Dan Soucek, R-Watauga and the sponsor of the student organization bill, said he decided to craft legislation after hearing from a religiously affiliated group that isn’t able to demote leaders if they stray from the group’s beliefs. He didn’t name the group.

“That right there was the impetus, thinking it seems a student organization should be able to make that decision within the bounds of the law,” he said.

No state law governing the authority of student organizations currently exists. Some Democrats, however, questioned the need for the law and wanted to know specific cases where colleges have trampled on student rights.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the conservative N.C. Values Coalition, cited a 2003 case at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At that time an administrator threatened the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship with the loss of funding because it held leaders to the group’s religious doctrine.

Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, argued the bill provides a necessary First Amendment defense regardless of a group’s religious or political affiliation.

“It may be an extreme example, but I do believe that if you have a socialist political student organization they should have the right to restrict membership of tea party people if they wish,” he said. “I think it cuts both ways.”

The bill passed with one dissenting voice vote and now heads to the full Senate.

The second bill said students can pray, express religious viewpoints, possess or distribute religious literature and organize religious groups as long as they don’t disrupt schools.

Democrats questioned the need to clarify what General Assembly staff said is mostly already allowed under existing law.

Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke and the bill’s lead sponsor, said the bill eliminates confusion among educators about how to handle religious expression.

The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, spoke in favor of the bill.

“Some educators many times out of ignorance, sometimes out of base motives and certain outside groups intimidate students into silence or inaction in matters of faith or practice,” he said.

Leanne Winner, a lobbyist for the North Carolina School Boards Association, said her group is mostly supportive of the bill but wants to rework its grievance procedure to conform with existing practices and make sure provisions governing faculty conduct toward religious activities are in line with legal precedents.

The bill passed the committee level unanimously and now heads to the Senate floor.

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