The Alabama legislature discussed two harmful bills yesterday, both of which would result in government promotion of religion in Alabama public schools
Of course, students already have to the right to engage in voluntary, student initiated prayer and religious expression in public schools, making these bills unnecessary. The bills are also harmful because they push for government sponsored and promoted prayer in the public school classrooms, which is not only unconstitutional, but would lead to many students feeling uncomfortable and excluded because of their beliefs.
One egregious bill, HB 318, would require public school teachers to recite prayers each morning at the beginning of school. Proponents of this bill have tried to create the illusion of constitutionality by specifying that the prayers must be the same ones recited by the United States Congress.
Using Congressional prayers does not, in fact, make this bill constitutional. A teacher-led prayer in a public school is undoubtedly different than a prayer in a legislative meeting. First, congressional prayers are directed only at the legislators themselves, who are adults, rather than young and impressionable students. Second, the opening prayers of a legislative session typically has an atmosphere where adults are free to enter and leave without notice. Students in a classroom, on the other hand, are a captive audience and legally mandated to attend school.
Even if the teacher’s prayer is not specific to any certain religion, it would show government endorsement of religion over non-religion and would almost certainly make some children feel uncomfortable and ostracized if they need to step into the hallway to avoid the prayer. Because it is likely to be found unconstitutional, this bill would inevitably waste taxpayer money with endless lawsuits.
HB 281 claims to allow religious student expression in public school classrooms, but actually is unnecessary and potentially harmful. Students can already observe their religion as long as it isn’t coercive or disrupt the school’s educational mission and activities.
HB 281 crosses that line. If passed, it would allow students to use the classroom to proselytize to fellow students. The bill doesn’t differentiate between personal observance, which is allowable, and outward promotion and proselytization of religion, which is blatantly unconstitutional.
Again, students are a captive audience required to be in school by law. This bill would inevitably cause certain students to feel like outsiders for what they believe in their very own classroom. A public school is not a place where people should feel coerced into certain beliefs or made to feel uncomfortable if they are a minority religion.
Unfortunately, HB 318 and HB 281 both passed yesterday in the Committee on Education Policy. In fact, HB 318 passed by voice vote even though only two members of the committee voted in favor of the bill. Vivian Beckerle, President of the Americans United Alabama Chapter, submitted letters opposing HB 318 and HB 281 on behalf of AU members of Alabama.