Deborah Chambers thought it would be no big deal to display a picture of Jesus on her notebook at the Chandler charter school where she is a seventh-grader.
She didn’t think the image of a bloodied Christ on the cross was all that different from a Muslim head scarf or a Phoenix Suns logo.
“It’s important to me because that’s what Jesus did for me,” Chambers said.
She said that last October a teacher sent her to the principal’s office after a fellow student complained about the notebook, and the principal told her she could no longer bring the notebook to school.
Her mother, Rebecca Chambers, sought help from the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative think tank, and she said the principal acquiesced after she presented information such as court precedents defending religious expression in schools.
That case has inspired a bill in which Rep. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, attempts to bring together a series of state laws and court decisions banning censorship in schools based on religion.
HB 2357 would bar all forms of religious discrimination in schools and would specify that students are allowed to wear religious clothing, jewelry and apparel on campus. Crandall said spelling out these rights clearly would help prevent misunderstandings that can wind up in court.
“In their efforts to be so conservative, to avoid any appearance of favoring one or the other, they accidentally make a mistake and cross the line and break the Constitution,” said Crandall, chairman of the House Education Committee.
The House passed the bill Wednesday on a 37-23 vote, sending it to the Senate.
The Center for Arizona Policy asked Crandall to sponsor the legislation.
“We see the bill as a winner all around,” said Deborah Sheasby, a litigator who has represented the group in legislative hearings on the bill.
Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said she supports the basic premise of the bill but said it should comprehensively cover all forms of expression.
“We vigorously support all kinds of expression, religious included,” she said. “Our concern is government treating religious speech differently from other kinds of speech.”
Michael Smith, a legislative consultant with the Arizona School Administrators Association, said that he understands the ACLU’s position but thinks the bill is a step in the right direction.
“If you try to address something that prescribes all potential forms of free expression, you’re gonna walk into a nightmare,” Smith said. “If they’d like to introduce a bill to cover all possible circumstances of free expression, they’re welcome to do that.”
Deborah Chambers still brings the binder to her school, Dobson Academy, and said she hasn’t been bothered about it since. She and her mother said the school’s principal, George Ellis, was responsive and understanding about the issue.
Ellis didn’t return a telephone call seeking comment on the case.
Deborah Chambers, who addressed the House Education Committee in support of the bill, said she’s concerned about other kids who want to express their religious beliefs at school.
“I really do want this bill to pass, and there’s some kids that are, like, being targeted,” she said.
Janice Palmer, governmental relations analyst for the Arizona School Boards Association, told the House Education Committee she would like to see some way the bill might prevent parents from immediately taking cases like this to court.
Crandall had the bill amended to require that parents follow a complaint-filing process that involves a written complaint to the school before a lawsuit is an option.
“The huge benefit to parents, schools and community members is it allows for an arbitration process,” Palmer said.
Rebecca Chambers, Deborah’s mother, said the main benefit of the bill is protecting students’ First Amendment rights.
“Freedom of speech doesn’t stop when you enter the school gates,” she said.