Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) seems determined to force coercive prayer and proselytizing back into public schools.

On March 14, Bryant signed the “Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013,” (in photo above) a measure that supposedly prevents discrimination “on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression.”

In reality, however, critics say this sweeping law mandates major church-state problems. SB 2633, they charge, opens the door to daily student-led prayer over school intercoms, as well as at graduations and athletic competitions. It even requires schools to develop policies guaranteeing student opportunities to pray or preach at all official events.

Bryant, who signed the bill with his grandmother’s large Bible on his desk near him, said “we’re on firm [legal] ground here with our opportunity for religious expression,” according to the Associated Press.

But some reply that the governor shouldn’t be so confident, given the precedent set 50 years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court in Abington v. Schempp. That June 1963 ruling held that school-sponsored prayers and devotional Bible reading violates the Constitution. (For more on the case, see “Ellery’s Epic Exploit,” page 7).

Nonetheless, half a century later, lawmakers like Bryant, as well as like-minded legislators in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Virginia and other states, have tried to sidestep the Schempp ruling and other high court decisions like it and force coercive worship back into schools.  

Bryant tries to give the impression that SB 2633 is about freedom, and state lawmakers apparently bought into that ruse as well. The Mississippi House passed it 109-6; the Senate approved it 50-1.

 But one lawmaker, who has long championed official school prayer, exposed the true motivation behind the measure: forcing Christianity on a captive audience of children.

“Legislators, especially those who claim to be Christian and that represent constituencies that are predominantly Christian according to polling, should make proactive moves to stand in the gap,” Rep. Mark Formby (R-Pearl River), told The Christian Post. “That’s what I see [SB 2633] doing.”

Critics such as Mississippi State University Prof. Mark Goodman insist the broad new law may be more extreme than lawmakers intended.

“What the hell were these guys thinking?” Goodman asked, according to the Columbus (Miss.) Dispatch. “They were trying to bring prayer back into school and they did that, but the law goes much further, granting students almost total First Amendment Rights.

“As I read the law,” he continued, “a student could wear a swastika and describe it as a religious object, and it would violate the law for the school district to require the student to remove it.”

Goodman also pointed out that non-Christians could take advantage of the law, which probably isn’t what Bryant, Formby and their allies intended.

“Theoretically,” said the professor, “a student school commencement speaker could lay down a prayer shawl and pray to Mecca and that would be protected by this Mississippi law.” 

Mississippi’s new measure isn’t the only problematic religion-in-schools proposal raised in state legislatures this session. A number of bills have been introduced that, like the Mississippi scheme, could undermine constitutional mandates.

In Oklahoma, for example, the “Religious Viewpoint Anti-Discrimination Act” has already passed the House of Representatives on a 79-13 vote. It would require schools to develop policies for student speakers at all official events.

Under the guise of “anti-discrimination,” HB 1940 would create a coercive prayer and proselytizing plan very much like the one in Mississippi.

State Rep. John Bennett (R-Sallisaw), who sponsored the measure, said his concept of free speech is more important than church-state separation.

“I think our constitutional right to free speech trumps any tradition in our schools of separating church and state,” Bennett said in a media statement.

Not everyone shares Bennett’s view, including Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn.

“I find it really disconcerting that a public official would say something like Bennett did,” he told Church & State. “To me, that indicates that he doesn’t understand what church-state separation is or why it’s important. If there were no separation, there would be no freedom for students or anyone else.”

Meanwhile, some Arkansas legislators have campaigned for bills promoting prayer as well as Bible study in public schools.

HB 1017, which sailed through the Arkansas House of Representatives, would require the state board of education to approve public school courses that teach the Bible. (Similar measures were introduced in North Carolina and Wyoming.)

That bill has come under fire from various groups, including the head of the state’s department of education, who called the measure unnecessary because schools may already offer academically objective Bible courses, the Baxter Bulletin said.

Americans United also challenged Altes’ proposal, urging lawmakers not to vote for this constitutionally risky measure. In a letter signed by AU State Legislative Counsel Elise Helgesen, AU Arkansas Chapter President Steve Warnock and Chapter Secretary Jim McCollum, legislators were told the bill is flawed because it lacks specific guidelines for Bible classes and criteria for teacher training to teach these courses. 

“[T]his bill does not ensure that courses will be taught in accordance with constitutional requirements for curriculum and teacher selection,” the letter explained.

Americans United fought another Arkansas measure as well, one that added a religious element to an existing moment of silence that begins each school day.

AU urged its activists to tell Gov. Mike Beebe (D) to veto HB 1690, which would add “voluntary prayer” to the activities allowed in the period of silence. AU noted in an “action alert” that the bill is just a backdoor scheme to promote student religious activity.

“Voluntary prayer is already protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Arkansas Constitution,” AU said in its message to activists. “The government’s act of encouraging prayer during this time is unnecessary and unconstitutional.”

Beebe, however, signed the measure.

Virginia politicians tried a slightly different – and far more permanent – tactic: a state constitutional amendment mandating that “citizens as well as elected officials and employees of the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall have the right to pray on government premises and public property so long as such prayers abide within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstances.”

It creates a number of other potential problems, such as allowing students to refuse school assignments if the assignments conflict with their religious beliefs. The bill was backed by the Family Foundation of Virginia, a top Religious Right group. SJR 287 was approved by the state Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, but it didn’t come to a floor vote before the legislature concluded its session in April.

AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett told Church & State that it’s nothing new for states to try to circumvent the Constitution and Supreme Court rulings they don’t like, but this prolonged fight for mandatory worship and religious instruction in the public schools is still hard to believe.

“Religious Right forces are not easily deterred,” she said. “We still have to keep fighting these bad bills after five decades, but I know we will continue to prevail because the Constitution is on our side.”