In just the past few weeks, two public school prayer bills have passed in state legislatures. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) signed HB 547 into law on March 24, and the Idaho legislature sent HB 182 to Gov. Brad Little (R) last week. Students have the right to pray, so long as it is voluntary, non-disruptive, student-led, and student-initiated. But these bills go much further: they invite teachers to pray with students, which is unconstitutional and violates the religious freedom of public school students.
The sponsors of these bills claimed that they are just meant to reflect what the U.S. Supreme Court said in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. But that explanation doesn’t make a lot of sense, because you don’t need legislation to do that – the Supreme Court’s decision is already the law. And the reality is these bills don’t mirror that decision; instead, they invite unconstitutional prayer, putting school districts in the impossible position of choosing between following the statute or the U.S. Constitution.
In Kennedy, the high court held that the Bremerton, Wash., School District had to allow a coach to say a private, personal prayer after football games. But the court was clear that public school employees cannot coerce students to pray with them. The court held that the coach’s prayer was not coercive because it was private and personal, was offered while his students were doing something else and did not involve leading prayers with his students.
The text of these bills, however, says that public school employees can pray and engage in religious expression at any time they can have personal conversations. Taken at face value, this means that if a principal who is greeting students at the door is permitted to send text messages to family members at that time, she is also allowed to pray over students as they enter the school. State Rep. Barbara Erhardt (R-Idaho Falls), the sponsor of the Idaho bill, even said during a committee hearing that her bill would permit teachers to pray aloud in the hallway. But that would clearly violate the Constitution.
The bill sponsors have also claimed that the bills are designed to protect religious freedom rights, but school employees already have the right to say personal, private prayers outside of instructional time. If public school employees are allowed to pray in front of or with students, students will feel coerced to join because school employees have extraordinary control over students and their experiences. Students understand that refusing to pray with a teacher or coach could negatively affect their time at school and their future: Teachers assign grades, give detention, and write recommendations. Coaches decide who gets to play and can help – or hinder – efforts to get college scholarships.
Unfortunately, public school prayer bills are still pending in other states, including a bill in Texas that would allow public schools to establish a period of prayer and Bible reading for teachers and students. But Americans United will keep working to protect the religious freedom of all public school students by continuing to oppose bills like these wherever they appear.