The Louisiana House Education Committee last week debated Senate Bill 512, which aims to let teachers pray with their students during the school day. Republican Sen. Ryan Gatti, the sponsor of the bill and representative of Bossier Parish, said he introduced the bill in response to AU’s lawsuit against Bossier Parish schools for unconstitutionally promoting Christianity to students.
In a letter, we explained to the committee why SB 512 is unconstitutional. Several Republicans on the committee also opposed the bill, as have some Louisiana faith leaders. Baton Rouge pastor Chris Andrews, for example, called the bill “unnecessary” and said public school teachers should not be preaching scripture.
But it was opposition from Michelle Ghetti, a constitutional law professor at Southern University Law Center and self-described “allied attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom” for decades, that might have taken people by surprise. She strongly supports the idea behind the bill, saying that she “certainly would love for teachers to be able to pray with students.” But she also acknowledged an obvious fact: SB 512 violates the First Amendment.
Ghetti said “we live in a very diverse society and we’ve got people of all religions at our schools. Concerns that the courts have had ... is basically ... discrimination against students that are not of the same religion.”
Ghetti explained that the bill violated the U.S. Constitution because it “is advancing religion. There’s no question about that, and I don’t think Sen. Gatti would argue otherwise.” Sen. Gatti did not, in fact, argue otherwise. And Ghetti warned the committee of the inevitable lawsuits that will follow passage of the bill: “I can guarantee you, this law passes ... the state will be sued.”
Ghetti didn’t come alone. She had a letter signed by directors at the Christian Legal Society, Center for Religious Expression and Liberty Counsel who were also all against the bill. Normally, we don’t find ourselves on the same side of government-sponsored school prayer bills as organizations like ADF and the others. But even they recognize that this bill violates the Constitution. Sen. Gatti, and the entire state legislature, should take this as a sign.
Prayer in school is a well-settled area of law. Public school students can, of course, pray, read the Bible and talk about their religion in their public school if they choose, but it must be student-led and -initiated, voluntary and non-disruptive.
But public school teachers, coaches and school employees cannot join student-led prayer because government must respect the rights and beliefs of all students by not endorsing religion. Ghetti explained one reason behind the law, noting that when teachers pray with students, “the concern is that those students then have a closer relationship ... with this particular teacher and that students who don’t [pray] ... might be ostracized.”
Despite Ghetti’s testimony, the education committee approved the bill (which already passed in the Senate) by a vote of 10-4. It will likely head to the House floor soon.
Click here to tell your representative that public school kids shouldn’t feel pressured to pray or participate in a faith that isn’t their own.