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Some States Seek To Bless Prayer In Public Schools

High school football players in Suitland, Md., pray with their coach Ed Shields (top right) before a game in 2013.
John McDonnell
The Washington Post/Getty Images
High school football players in Suitland, Md., pray with their coach Ed Shields (top right) before a game in 2013.

Religious groups have been testing the limits on prayer in public school for decades. Now they think they've come up with a new strategy that will allow students to pray wherever and whenever they want.

Bills have been moving in a number of states that would allow students to engage in prayer at school functions such as graduation.

"I believe there's discrimination involved, yes I do, against individuals who would like to express some value to their faith," says state Sen. Ferrell Haile, sponsor of a school prayer bill in Tennessee awaiting approval from GOP Gov. Bill Haslam.

Haile says his bill would merely allow students to express faith in the same way they talk about any other subject. But school board lawyers and civil liberties activists warn it could violate constitutional restrictions against state-sponsored religion.

"Church-state turns out to be the thread, if not the rope, that connects so many of these things together," says Barry Lynn, executive director of the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Barred From The Square?

Many people of faith, notably conservative Christians, believe their right to religious expression has been under threat for decades, at least since the Supreme Court in 1962 banned school-sponsored prayer.

Both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature passed a bill on Tuesday that would largely protect shop owners from charges of discrimination if they refuse to serve customers based on religious belief. It was similar to the controversial Arizona bill that was vetoed in February.

The votes in Mississippi took place one week after the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether private employers should be exempted from contraceptive coverage mandates that offend their religious beliefs.

Meanwhile, some criticized the Air Force Academy recently for removing a biblical verse from a cadet's dorm hall whiteboard. Others find it ludicrous that human resource managers debate whether saying "bless you" after someone sneezes amounts to religious harassment.

"This hostility to faith-based speech has become so pronounced," says Gary Bauer, president of the nonprofit group American Values.

New state laws in Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina represent an attempt to allow students to express their faith at official school functions, such as athletic events and assemblies, so long as the students — and not the teachers and administrators — initiate prayer or discussion of God.

"I come from that background of knowing first-hand how they are discriminated against," says Alabama state Rep. Mack Butler, author of a religious expression bill and a former school board member. "It's not intentional discrimination, but educators are just scared to death."

Follow The Guidelines

The federal Department of Education sent guidelines to every school in the nation in both 2000 and 2003, spelling out the requirements for allowing religious speech on campus.

"Superintendents are supposed to say every year that they have no policies that contradict these guidelines if they want to receive federal funding," says Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum.

No school has been denied funding on this basis, Haynes says, but the provision potentially could have teeth.

According to the guidelines, students can pray or read the Bible on their own time on school grounds and can express beliefs about religion in homework or class assignments. They can organize prayer groups that must be accorded the same use of school facilities as other noncurricular groups.

Students can also offer prayers at official events such as graduation, so long as student speakers are selected on the "basis of genuinely neutral, evenhanded criteria" that neither favor nor prevent those who might talk about faith.

With such guidelines in place, civil liberties groups say legislation enshrining the right of students to pray and discuss faith openly is unnecessary.

"Truly voluntary prayer is protected," says Lynn, of Americans United. "No one praying over her cookies and milk is going to be arrested or stopped."

But sponsors of the bills argue that school officials remain nervous about being accused of endorsing religion and will sometimes impede students from expressing their beliefs, whether in class assignments or on T-shirts and jewelry.

"The school districts have been fearful — at least some districts have been very fearful — of what is the line of what we can do and what we cannot do," says Haile, the Tennessee state senator. "We feel like this is putting it more clearly into law, that they don't feel like whatever they do they're going to face lawsuits from one side or the other."

Lawsuits Either Way

Haile's bill was prompted in part by an incident in Memphis last fall. Students in a fifth-grade class were asked to write about someone they idolize — and a 10-year-old girl chose God. Her report was rejected and she was allowed instead to write about Michael Jackson.

The school district quickly apologized for the "regrettable misunderstanding," but not before the girl's mother had alerted the media.

"There are people across the country waiting for such triggers," says Haynes of the Newseum. "These are cookie-cutter bills, much the same in every state. There are religious advocacy groups that think these bills are necessary and wait for an opportunity."

After introducing similar legislation last year, Butler says he did his homework on this year's version, checking with the state attorney general and other lawyers to make sure it could survive any challenge.

"It's 100 percent constitutional," he says. "Student-initiated prayer is legal, really."

But his bill and others like it may be trying to walk too fine a line, warns Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Even if students are nominally expressing their own viewpoints, deciding which students are allowed to speak before "captive audiences" at school events could put administrators in the position of appearing to bless prayer.

"What we see — and this is a trend across the country — is that there's an effort to impose one's religious doctrine in school settings," Weinberg says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.