Virginia’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, has announced he’ll veto a controversial school prayer bill if it reaches his desk.The governor’s decision effectively ends an ongoing effort by some state legislators to “return” prayer to public schools. Advertised as a “religious freedom” measure, the bill’s sponsors claimed it would affirm students’ rights to organize religious clubs, to wear religious clothing, and to express religious speech at official school events.Sen. Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County), the bill’s primary sponsor, called it “an anti-discrimination” measure. According to the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, Carrico said that if passed, the bill would allow “the expression of one’s faith as a student in the school system.”Other supporters of the measure argued that it would apply to members of all religions, and therefore couldn’t possibly violate the First Amendment.
“I don’t think there’s anything in this bill that would prevent a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jewish, a Christian or indeed a nonreligious student from exercising their rights under the bill,” Sen. Dick Black (R-Loudoun) said in the Washington Post. But the bill had troubling implications. It would have prohibited local schools from regulating any religious speech whatsoever; in other words, a student could preach to the entire student body at graduation and the school would be powerless to prevent it.That particular provision is likely inspired by Roy Costner, a South Carolina valedictorian who, after being told he couldn’t deliver a sectarian speech, tore up his approved speech at graduation and led students in the Lord’s Prayer. Costner and his supporters claim that his disrespect for the sensibilities of his non-Christian classmates should have been protected speech. It seems likely that Carrico and Black agree.Fortunately, The Post reports that some members of the state Senate pointed out some uncomfortable facts. “Prayers are unlikely to be from anything but the majority religion,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria).That’s a legitimate observation. Virginia is a majority Christian state. It’s unlikely that students, especially students located in the state’s rural areas, would ever be exposed to a Muslim prayer or a Jewish blessing at a school event. Carrico’s bill would essentially give the Costners of Virginia free reign to evangelize.
In an editorial also published by The Post, Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Project at D.C.’s Newseum, explained why bills like Carrico’s aren’t necessary.“Advocating for ‘school prayer’ is, of course, a poll-tested winner for politicians seeking to stir voter outrage – and establish Christian conservative bona fides,” he wrote. “The claim that public schools are hostile to Christians may rev up caucus-goers in Iowa, but there’s only one problem: It isn’t true.”“In fact, contrary to culture-war mythology, there is more student religious speech and practice in public schools today than at any time in the past 100 years,” he added.Haynes is absolutely correct. Religious expression is already protected by the First Amendment. Public school students already have the right to live out their faith. They can join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Young Life, or another religious club. They can wear religious t-shirts and jewelry. And they’re free to explain their beliefs to their classmates.But the Supreme Court has been clear: School-sponsored prayer violates the First Amendment, and that’s why it isn’t permitted at official school events. Students should feel free to express their beliefs, but their right to expression doesn’t include a right to coerce classmates to join them in religious exercise.McAuliffe’s intention to veto the bill is good news for Virginia students. As other governors consider similar measures, let’s hope they follow his example.
P.S. Virginia is far from alone in pushing official school prayer bills. In fact, it’s a national problem. I wrote a story about the resurgence of school prayer bills in the states for the March issue of Church & State, so be sure to take a look at that next month.