Schools and Learning

These School Prayer Bills Are Out Of Bounds

  Mary Cugini

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District last year, we have seen an uptick in the number of public school prayer bills across the country. The U.S. Constitution protects public school students’ right to engage in voluntary, student-led, student-initiated prayer that is not coercive and not disruptive. But the Constitution also prohibits public schools and their employees from sponsoring, encouraging or participating in religious activities with students.

In Kennedy, the Court held that a public school football coach had the right to say “a brief, quiet, personal” prayer. But groups like First Liberty, the organization that represented the coach at the Supreme Court and a member of the well-funded Shadow Network of organizations working to undermine church-state separation, want to push past the limits of the Supreme Court decision and are helping legislators introduce public school prayer bills in the states.

State Lawmakers Distort Ruling

State legislators have claimed that their bills simply mirror what the Supreme Court said in Kennedy. But if that were true, there’d be no need for legislation – it’s already the law. Instead, these bills are designed to give teachers and other public school employees the right to pray in ways that would be unconstitutional.

For example, the Supreme Court said that public school employees cannot coerce students to pray with them. But a bill in Idaho, HB 182, would give teachers the right to pray aloud at any time they are allowed to engage in personal conversations or conduct. This means that a teacher on lunch duty who is free to chat with other teachers would also be allowed to stand up at lunch and pray aloud in front of students. And a bill in Oklahoma would give teachers “the right to pray with, over, or in front of students.” These bills trample the important constitutional safeguards that the Supreme Court laid out in Kennedy.

School-Sponsored Prayer: Inherently Divisive

Enacting bills like these would inevitably lead to school-sponsored prayer and make anyone who is not a member of the majority religion feel like an outsider and unwelcome at their own public school. No student should ever be made to feel excluded – whether it’s in a classroom or on the football field – because they don’t share the religious beliefs of their coaches, teachers or fellow students.

Parents should feel comfortable sending their children to public schools and not fear that they will be preached to or forced to pray according to someone else’s faith tradition. Praying is inherently religious, and choosing to pray is a deeply personal decision. To uphold the U.S. Constitution, states, public schools, and teachers must respect these limits on school-sponsored prayer.

So far this year, we’re tracking school prayer bills in 13 states, including the bills in Idaho and Oklahoma. AU is working with allies on strategy and sharing analyses. We sent a letter to members of the Idaho House urging them to reject the bill. It passed the House and is under consideration in the Senate, but at a committee hearing, there was some skepticism about the bill. And a bill in Kentucky, HB 547, was passed in the House last week.

We’ll continue to monitor these bills and work to protect the religious freedom of all public school students.


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