Freshman U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) decided to make his first speech on the floor of the Senate earlier this week. It didn’t go very well.

It’s hard to pin down the theme of the talk since Tuberville rambled a bit, but he did include this comment: “We’ve got to start teaching our young people moral values again. That starts with putting God and prayer back in schools.”

That’s a lot of misinformation packed into just two sentences.

Let’s begin with the claim that young people aren’t learning moral values these days. It’s a common Christian nationalist canard, but it’s wrong and offensive. Anyone who has raised children will tell you that imparting moral instruction and striving to sculpt your kids into decent, caring and thoughtful adults is a huge part of the job. Some parents use religion as the anchor, while others do not. I’m sure some parents fall down here, but most strive by word, deed and example to raise good kids.

Public schools, which serve 90% of our children, impart morals too. Schools make it clear that there are certain infractions (cheating, lying, bullying, etc.) that merit punishment, and they reward students who study hard, help their peers and get active in their communities. Christian nationalists love to portray public schools as cesspools of moral relativism, but it just isn’t so.

But it’s Tuberville’s claim that we need to put “God and prayer back in schools” that is most off base. The fact is, there’s plenty of room for religious activity in public schools – but there’s no place for coercion or force.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1962 and ’63 struck down school-sponsored, compulsory forms of prayer and Bible reading in public schools. The court did this in part because requiring children to participate in worship against their will violated their rights and the rights of their parents.

But the high court did not expel all prayers from public schools. Students are free to pray today in an individual, non-disruptive fashion and many undoubtedly do so. Students also have the right to read religious books during any free time they may have during the school day. Many secondary schools also allow students to form voluntary, student-run religious clubs. Finally, students may learn about religion as an academic subject and study its impact on history, art, literature and so on.      

It sure doesn't sound like religion has been banned from public schools!

Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser told the news site AL.com that Tuberville’s ill-informed comments amount to an “aggressive attack” on church-state separation, adding, “If Senator Tuberville is serious about improving education, he should channel his energy toward ensuring that all children have access to adequately funded, high-quality public education. Rants about school prayer may play well with his base of supporters back home, but they do nothing to help our children.”

One year ago, AU’s Church & State magazine produced a special issue on school prayer. One of the articles debunks common myths about the role of religion in public education. Alabama’s new senator would do well to read it.

Protecting the religious freedom of public school children has been an integral part of Americans United’s mission since our founding nearly 75 years ago. Join us to help ensure public schools remain inclusive spaces that welcome everyone, regardless of their religious or nonreligious beliefs.