May 2012 Church & State | Editorial

Given the fragile state of the economy these days, one would think state legislators would have more than enough to do creating jobs and shoring up public services during a time when budgets are tight.

Instead, lawmakers in many states are wasting precious time trying to undermine the constitutional separation of church and state through subterfuge, especially in the public schools.

Florida has a new law allowing “inspirational messages” (read: prayers) in public schools. Tennessee legislators are busy urging educators to teach the alleged “controversy” over evolution. In Tennessee and Georgia, lawmakers have approved laws designed to find new ways to post the Ten Commandments (as a component of “historic documents” displays) in public schools.

Some state lawmakers have defended these bills by claiming to support “religious liberty,” “free speech,” or better education, but let’s be honest: These bills are just more tired attempts to smuggle religion into public schools under false pretenses. They’re disgraceful efforts to evade the principles of the U.S. Constitution and pander to religious voters in an election year.

Public schools, many of which are already groaning under severe budget cuts in many states, can hardly afford expensive lawsuits. Yet such litigation will be the inevitable result of this crop of stealth attacks on the First Amendment.

One Tennessee representative voted for a measure that would open the door for religion in public school classrooms even as he admitted that divisiveness was likely.

“I like the bill, but I do know it comes with consequences,” Rep. Richard Montgomery (R-Sevierville) said, according to The (Nashville) Tennessean. “That is, as long as the speaker is speaking what I believe, everything is good, but when they start speaking what I don’t believe, there may be controversy in the communities.”

Controversy in the communities? More likely lawsuits in the communities.

And they are lawsuits that the schools will likely lose. The federal courts have been clear on this matter: Public schools are for teaching, not preaching. No bill by legislators in Tennessee, or any other state, can override those rulings.

Rather than needlessly stirring up culture wars, state legislators need to stick to legitimate public business. In light of the challenges we face, there is plenty for them to do. State legislators’ refusing to do that work is bad enough. Passing laws that are guaranteed to put public institutions in the crosshairs for lawsuits borders on criminal.