Local boards of education in North Carolina must not allow public school faculty and staff to participate in prayer and worship with students, even though a new state law encourages such activity, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.
In letters being sent to state school districts, attorneys with Americans United assert that SB 370, which states that school boards cannot stop “school personnel from participating in religious activities on school grounds that are initiated by students” before or after school hours, is unconstitutional because teachers still exert authority over students regardless of when an activity takes place.
“When a public school teacher prays with students, he or she is endorsing religion,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Even if the prayer is supposedly ‘optional’ it amounts to coercion when a teacher joins in. The U.S. Constitution has been interpreted to strictly prohibit this sort of behavior, and it doesn’t matter that some lawmakers in North Carolina or any other state disagree.”
SB 370 drew virtually no objection from members of the North Carolina House of Representatives or Senate this spring and was signed by Gov. Pat McCrory on June 19.
This is not the first time Tar Heel State lawmakers have attempted to defy federal law on church-state matters. Most notably, some legislators backed a failed 2013 proposal that would have allowed North Carolina and its counties to establish Christianity as their official religion despite the obvious conflict with the First Amendment.
“It is elementary that a state law cannot override the commands of the federal [First Amendment],” reads AU’s letter. “And under the U.S. Constitution, public schools must avoid exerting even ‘subtle coercive pressure’ on students to participate in religious activity.”
Said AU Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper: “The North Carolina Statute is a clumsy attempt to circumvent the First Amendment. The school districts’ first obligation is to the U.S. Constitution, which puts parents – not public school officials – in charge of their children’s religious upbringing.”
In addition to Lipper, the letter is signed by Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Steven Gey Fellow Charles Gokey*. It is being sent to every public school district in the state.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.