States Of Prayer: Legislators In Three States Push Bills To Promote Religion In Public Schools

Lawmakers in South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee are debating bills that are designed, supporters say, to “put prayer back in schools.”

The Supreme Court made it clear decades ago that our public schools aren’t meant to be places for spreading religion. But for legislators in three states, court rulings are no deterrent to their dogmatic agendas.

Lawmakers in South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee are debating bills that are designed, supporters say, to “put prayer back in schools.” The tactics vary, but in each case the desired outcome is the same: a potentially unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. And the legislators behind the bills aren’t shy about their motivations.

In a proposal to designate the first Sunday of August as “Prayer Walking Day” for public schools, Tennessee State Rep. Jimmy Matlock (R-Lenoir City) credited America’s Christian majority as justification for the bill, and added a dose of theology in its text.

“WHEREAS, we, as citizens of the State of Tennessee, value the freedom we have to gather and pray, and we acknowledge that ultimate power, protection, and security come from God,” it asserts, and later adds, “[G]iven the violent acts that have beset our nation's schools-from Columbine High School and Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook Elementary; it is imperative that people of prayer should join together, to ask God for his blessing and protection upon every child in our schools.”

Matlock’s decision to capitalize on devastating tragedy to push his sectarian agenda should be met with public condemnation. Unfortunately, the Tennessee House already passed his proposal. It’s now under consideration by the Senate, which held its first hearing on the bill yesterday.

And Matlock has company in this quest to insert religion in public classrooms. South Carolina’s legislature is debating a bill that would mandate a moment of silence or prayer in schools. The bill is largely redundant; the state has required schools to observe a moment of silence since 1995.

Sponsors had originally called for a moment of prayer only, but compromised by adding a moment of silence in a bid to make the proposal more palatable to critics.

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard (D-Charleston) told  the press, “The compromise would be to have the students to pray to whomever they want to. If they want to do away with teachers conducting the prayer, that would be fine with us. The essential part of the bill, the important part, is putting prayer back in school.”

And as for atheists? Rep. Joseph Jefferson (D-Berkeley) assured reporters that, “Even the atheists, it gives them the option of praying or not praying without anybody interfering.”

Meanwhile in Virginia, legislators behind a push to permit prayer and other religious activities in public schools don’t appear to have considered atheist students at all. The bill, which recently passed the state Senate, would require that official school events allow religious speech, and is also designed to allow the formation of religious student clubs – something already covered by federal law.

Its sponsor, State Sen. Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County), claims that all religions would be equally protected under the new law. But critics disagree. During floor debate on the bill, Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said, “School-sponsored religion is inevitably and inherently exclusionary. Prayers are unlikely to be from anything but the majority religion due to sheer numerical superiority.”

There is no war on the rights of Christian students. They’ve always been entitled to pray privately in school, just as they’ve been entitled to form religious clubs. The Supreme Court’ s rulings on the matter have been consistent: students cannot be coerced into religious observance. Public schools were never meant to be centers for sectarianism.

And yet, that’s exactly what these bills would like to change. There’s no question that by granting special rights to religious students, or instituting “prayer walks,” or igniting national debate over a redundant school prayer proposal, legislators are attempting to affiliate public schools with a specific religious belief system.

The First Amendment protects public school students from becoming pawns in a culture war. It’s time state legislators remembered that.