A Georgia group apparently thinks forcing more prayer into public schools will cure all sorts of societal problems.

During a rally yesterday on the steps of the Georgia State Capitol, a group called the Legislative Clergy Council gathered along with a handful of clergy and some students from Morehouse College in support of a student prayer bill.

“(In) 1962 the Supreme Court made this ruling and, what we’ve noticed since the Supreme Court ruling, there has been an increase in violence, murder, teen pregnancy, divorce rate,” Sabrina McKenzie said. “If you don’t think prayer is the answer, then what is the answer?”

There are so many things wrong with that statement that we need to break it down, point by point.

First, it is a common misconception that the U.S. Supreme Court banned prayer from public schools in the 1960s. That is flatly false. While the high court did strike down mandatory Bible reading and prayers, students are still free to pray and read the Bible during the school day on their own or in small groups. As long as they do not infringe on anyone else’s rights there is no problem.

Second, there is another common misconception that America has gone downhill since the 1960s. Actual data doesn’t support this. After a spike in the 1960s and 70s due to legal changes, the divorce rate in the United States actually declined steadily after the 1980s. The same goes for the violent crime rate and the teen pregnancy rate.

In reality, many of the people who bemoan the decline of American “values” since 1960 are actually longing for a time when public schools could force a version of Christianity onto students and white, male Christians had all the power. Try asking virtually any minority group if they would have preferred living in 1950s America to the modern U.S.    

Third, whether or not prayer is the answer to any or all of the problems in our society is not for the government to decide. No law should ever instruct people whether or when to pray.

The Legislative Clergy Council made its comments yesterday in support of HB 816, also known as the “Georgia Student Religious Liberties Act.” Among its provisions are: “that local school systems shall provide a limited public forum for student speakers at nongraduation and graduation events; [and] to provide a model policy for voluntary religious expression in public schools….”

It’s a pretty vague bill overall that critics say could have unintended consequences, including allowing public schools to decide what sort of religious speech is permissible by students.

“There is a concern that the law specifically creates a limited public forum, which means the government then gets to decide more leeway on what speech is included and what is not,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia Executive Director Maya Dillard Smith. “You could have a hodgepodge of laws from county to county.”

Bills like HB 816 are usually motivated by ignorance and arrogance. The First Amendment already allows plenty of religious liberty for students in public schools, so their right to expression does not need additional protection. And no lawmaker should be coercing students to engage in religious activities – that’s something the First Amendment actually prohibits.

Whether or not prayer is the answer, as McKenzie asked, is not for the government to decide. But one thing’s clear: This vaguely worded, possibly legally problematic law is going to spawn more harm than help.