The Push for Prayer in Public Schools

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After decades of removing religious influences from the public school forum, the United States has seen a surging political movement in several state legislatures attempting to bring prayer back onto school grounds. Since the landmark Supreme Court decision in Engel v. Vitale in 1962 declaring school-sponsored religious activities such as prayer unconstitutional until the Court’s more recent decision in 2000 in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, it seemed as if religious influence was being definitively pushed out of school activities.

John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life stated, “[e]ven in a very modern, secularizing society, religion remains a very powerful source of values, a powerful source of activities and a powerful source of community.” However, while religion can be a strong uniting force, it’s proper role in government and public schools can also be a source of very heated conflict and debate.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant took pen to paper March 14, 2013 to sign a bill into law that will permit students to express religious beliefs and messages at school events. The controversial bill will require school districts to adopt policies which would allow students to present their religious beliefs in a “limited public forum” at school sporting events and during school announcements. According to the New York Times, the bill also requires schools to issue some form of disclaimer, such as a statement in the event program, informing the public that the religious speech is not a state sanctioned activity. The bill also notes that students will be able to express their personal religious beliefs in their school assignments and will be allowed to form and participate in organizations supporting those views.

Governor Bryant spoke confidently about the future of the new legislation saying that a lot of research went into its formation and that the senators modeled it after similar Texas laws. Opponents including the American Civil Liberties Union anticipate lawsuits to come once the bill goes into effect on July 1, 2013 if there is any proselytizing taking place in public schools. Opponents are also concerned that the limited funds of the school districts will be spent in the expensive legal battles that may follow once this law goes into effect. However, Governor Bryant has responded to his critics saying that, "[i]f we've got to spend taxpayers' money, I think we would be honored to spend it in defending religious freedoms for the people of the state of Mississippi."

As reported by the Huffington Post back in January, Indiana State Senator Dennis Kruse introduced a similar bill dealing with school prayer a few months ago. Kruse, who serves as chair of the Indiana senate’s education committee, is pushing to bring the Lord’s Prayer back into schools. Although there is an opt-out provision, all other students would be required to participate in reciting the prayer. However, the Indiana Senate’s legal committee believes that such legislation is unconstitutional.

Voters in Missouri were passionate enough to pass an amendment to the state constitution with over 80% of the popular vote. Commonly known as the “right to pray” amendment, it is described by supporters as an attempt to make the state constitution match the protections outlined in the United States Constitution and protect Christianity in the state which they feel is being threatened.

A year ago, the same thing happened in Florida. State Bill 98 was signed by the governor allowing students to read “inspirational messages of their choosing” at school events such as assemblies and sporting events. School officials are not permitted to interfere with any of the student-chosen messages. Several religious leaders of different faiths rallied together to protest the bill as being a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution and “disrespectful of the religious diversity that makes our state and our nation great.”

As Noah Fitzgerel, a young high school journalist, wrote in a blog for Huffington Post, “[t]his bill is simply an iteration of an uncomfortable political movement that encourages the marginalization of minority religions in the name of a majority.”

In Santa Fe v. Doe, the Supreme Court declared student led prayer at Texas school events was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. A majority of the Court held that since the students used a loudspeaker system owned by the school it became school-sponsored prayer. It is hard to see how we can reconcile the recent actions of these state legislatures with the opinion of the Supreme Court handed down in Santa Fe v. Doe, but only time will tell what challenges will arise and what their fates will be.

Posted by Amanda R. Witzke (Mandy) on Sun. March 17, 2013 9:17 AM
Categories: Freedom of Religion

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