The Louisiana legislature has let us down again.
On Saturday, the state Senate passed a bill intended to promote prayer in the public schools. HB 724 was adopted unanimously there, just as it was in the House of Representatives. The measure is now on its way to Gov. Bobby Jindal, and he is almost certain to sign it.
Introduced by Rep. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe), the bill purports merely to permit voluntary student prayer gatherings. In fact, it does much more.
The measure not only allows students to gather in classrooms, auditoriums or other school spaces for prayer outside class hours, it also invites teachers and other school officials to participate. To make matters worse, it allows parents and other “persons from the community” to join in as well.
These prayer rallies are supposed to take place before and after the school day, but that does little to ameliorate the constitutional quagmire.
As Americans United warned in a letter to legislators, “[T]he bill places no limits on the size or frequency of these events. As the bill is written, students could fill the public school auditorium to full capacity with their families and outsiders every morning for a large community-wide prayer service.”
AU State Legislative Counsel Elise Helgesen cautioned that the bill “will likely invite constitutional abuses and costly litigation.”
That’s exactly right. Louisiana is still part of the United States, and the U.S. Constitution still applies there. Public schools are not houses of worship. They are intended to serve families with many different perspectives about religion. Children are there to learn, not to be coerced into revival meetings.
The bill even applies to elementary schools. So if second-graders want to, they can sponsor prayer rallies in the gym every morning before class and bring their pastors and fellow congregants to the service. Their teachers, administrators and other school staff can lead the prayers, too.
This is a lot of things, but it’s not separation of church and state. And that’s just fine with Rep. Jackson.
"Other organizations or clubs are able to bring speakers in; this bill allows them too, with approval of school," she told KLFY-TV. "We allow teachers who are not clocked in to also participate if students invite them and if asked they can lead the prayer." (Jackson’s original bill called for daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, so we know where she’s coming from in all this.)
Let’s get something straight. Truly voluntary student prayer has always been legal in public schools. Neither the Constitution, nor the Supreme Court has ever said otherwise. But this divisive bill goes far beyond that fact and pushes school districts into problematic territory.
With this bill, the Louisiana legislature has invited sectarian tensions into a place where all children should feel welcome regardless of their feelings about faith. It is shameful that not one single Louisiana legislator had the courage to stand up and say this bill is wrong.
We’ll be watching carefully to see how this measure plays out at the local level. If it results in abuses of the rights of students, lawsuits are almost certain to occur.