Earlier this summer, legislators in North Carolina passed Senate Bill 370, which (unnecessarily) reiterated the rights of students to express their faith in school. These rights were already protected under the law, but you can never appease religious voters too much…
The Republican-dominated House and Senate voted overwhelmingly in support of the bill, with plenty of Democrats helping them out. The Republican governor, as expected, signed it into law.
But there was reason to be worried because the bill included this line:
Local boards of education may not prohibit school personnel from participating in religious activities on school grounds that are initiated by students at reasonable times before or after the instructional day so long as such activities are voluntary for all parties and do not conflict with the responsibilities or assignments of such personnel.
According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, that’s unconstitutional:
“When a public school teacher prays with students, he or she is endorsing religion,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Even if the prayer is supposedly ‘optional’ it amounts to coercion when a teacher joins in. The U.S. Constitution has been interpreted to strictly prohibit this sort of behavior, and it doesn’t matter that some lawmakers in North Carolina or any other state disagree.”
That coercion factor still applied even if the prayers happened before or after school. If a faculty member participated in a student-led prayer — let’s say a football coach or a strict teacher — it’s reasonable to think other students would be pressured to participate in order to remain on the adults’ good side.
AU sent a letter to school district leaders across the state reminding them of these issues.
Now, lawmakers in Alabama plan to do the same thing, because… Jesus.
The sponsors, state Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Gulf Shores, and Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, contend the bill would clarify a right Americans already have.
McMillan said the bill addresses prior court rulings restricting the ability of people to pray in school.
“We believe it will restore the rights of children to have voluntary religious activities in school,” he said.
It’s amazing how Alabama has solved all of its problems and they’re now working on legislation that just reinforces laws already in the books…
And the right to have voluntary religious activities in school was never taken away in the first place! Students can pray around the flagpole before school, have Christian clubs after school, and read their Bible during lunch. None of that was ever in doubt.
Once again, though, the bill includes the problematic passage allowing teachers to join students in some of these activities:
Gregory Lipper, senior litigation counsel for [Americans United], said the courts have ruled that teachers cannot participate. He said religious activities among students become less than voluntary when they see people in positions of authority taking part.
“It creates an undue pressure on students to join in,” he said.
But Dial, the Alabama bill’s co-sponsor, said barring teachers from praying would trigger a separate constitutional problem.
“How are you going to deny a teacher, and tell them they can’t pray?” he said. “You’re violating their constitutional rights.”
Let’s say it all together now: Teachers can pray. That’s not up for debate.
In case you’re wondering what the point of this bill is, I’ll just remind you that Sen. Dial, one of the co-sponsors, only narrowly won his Republican primary this summer. Rep. McMillan is running unopposed. But both undoubtedly want to shore up their Christian base.
(Thanks to Matthew for the link. Large portions of this article were posted earlier.)