Oh, boy. Here we go again.
The North Carolina Senate has unanimously passed a bill supposedly intended to “clarify” the law governing voluntary prayer and other religious activities in public school.
According to WRAL, Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) said, “This act is an attempt to clarify statewide that students do have the right to express in manners as they otherwise would their religious affiliations. It also tends to clarify that faculty members aren’t required, as they felt they were under other policies, to be hostile to those expressions.”
Yeah, right. In fact, SB 370 was bad to start with, and legislators quickly made it worse.
On Tuesday, Americans United warned senators that the bill is bad news.
In a letter to the Senate Appropriations on Education Committee, AU Winston-Salem Chapter activists Charles F. Wilson (who happens to be a retired Baptist minister) and Anne G. Wilson asserted that the measure grants “special privileges” to religious speech and “will likely invite constitutional abuses and costly litigation.”
AU noted that the original bill not only allowed students to gather for voluntary prayer, but allowed teachers and other school personnel to attend the gatherings. It mandated that the adults “shall demonstrate appropriate respect and may adopt a respectful posture.”
This vague language, of course, raised constitutional issues. Instead of making things clear, the bill muddied the water. What does “appropriate respect” and “respectful posture” mean?
Said the Wilsons, “Americans United supports students’ rights to engage in student-initiated voluntary prayer. However, as currently written, SB 370 does more than merely clarify existing law; it promotes school sponsorship of religion.”
Then, of course, lawmakers made matters worse, changing the measure’s provisions to specifically allow faculty and other school personnel to participate in student-led prayers before and after the instructional day.
SB 370 now goes to the House, where it very well may be warmly received.
You know the North Carolina House – the august legislative body that earlier this year pondered a resolution declaring that North Carolina state and local governments don’t have to obey the church-state provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Nullification-lite and all that.
H.J. Res. 494 was sponsored by nine Republican lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Edgar Starnes (R-Hickory). It caused a national media storm, however, and red-faced House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Charlotte) quickly said he wasn’t going forward with the bill. It was all just a big old misunderstanding, y’all.
We’ll see if he says that about SB 370.
After all, the school prayer measure is also an affront to the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state. The federal courts have repeatedly held that public schools and public school personnel cannot promote religion. Yet, this bill suggests that North Carolina can set rules for its public schools that effectively marginalize religious minorities and other children who may not want to learn in an environment saturated with the majority faith.
This is a big test of North Carolina legislators’ commitment to diversity, equality and a public school system that welcomes all children, regardless of their views about religion.
Come on, North Carolina: Ace this test.