June 2023 Church & State Magazine - June 2023

Trouble in Texas: Lone Star State legislators are trying to merge religion and public education — and other states are following suit

  Liz Hayes

When the Supreme Court’s ultraconservative bloc ruled last summer that a public high school football coach could say a brief, private prayer on the 50-yard line after games in Americans United’s Kennedy v. Bremerton School District case, AU President and CEO Rachel Laser warned that Christian Nationalists would exploit the decision to advance their crusade of forcing school kids to pray.

“As the network of religious extremists and their political allies behind this case celebrate victory, we can expect them to try to expand this dangerous precedent — further undermining everyone’s right to live as ourselves and believe as we choose,” Laser said last June.

Keep them secular! America’s public schools must serve children of all faiths and none (Getty Images)

State legislators around the country wasted no time doing just that when they returned to session starting in January. Among the more than 1,500 state bills affecting church-state separation that AU is tracking this year, scores deal with religion in public schools. Several legislators backing these bills have referred to misinterpretations of the Kennedy decision to justify undermining students’ and families’ religious freedom.

Texas is leading the pack with three particularly troublesome bills that would advance Christian Nationalism in public schools. Each bill had passed at least one chamber of the state legislature as Church & State went to press.

“What we are seeing right now is a surge of white Christian Nationalism being pushed in state legislatures all around the country,” Andrew L. Seidel, AU’s vice president of strategic communications, told The Forward, a national Jewish newspaper. “And the goal of white Christian Nationalism is to legally privilege conservative, white, heterosexual Christian men at the expense of everybody else. This series of bills that they are proposing is very clearly an attempt to codify white Christian Nationalism into the Texas law. White Christian Nationalism is a threat to anybody who does not fit into that group.”

Ten Commandments

Texas state Sen. Phil King (R-Weatherford) referred to the myth that America was founded to be an officially Christian nation as well as the Kennedy decision to justify the bill he sponsored, Senate Bill 1515, which would require every public school classroom in Texas to display the Ten Commandments.

“I think this would be a good, healthy step for Texas to bring back this tradition of recognizing America’s religious heritage. Senate Bill 1515 restores a little bit of those liberties that were lost,” said King, according to a report by the television network NewsNation.

King’s bill even specifies that the King James Bible version of the Ten Commandments – a predominantly Protestant version – must be displayed.  Protestants, Catholics and Jews typically number and word the commandments differently.

In a formal letter to Texas lawmakers urging them to oppose the bill, AU State Policy Counsel Nik Nartowicz and three leaders from AU’s El Paso and Houston chapters explained that displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court more than 40 years ago. In the 1980 Stone v. Graham case from Kentucky, the court said the Ten Commandments are “undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths” and that displaying them in public schools “serves no … educational function.”

Faith leaders are also speaking out.

NewsNation reported that John Litzler, the general counsel and director of public policy at the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, argued that parents, not legislators and public schools, should get to decide if, when and how to introduce kids to the concepts in the Ten Commandments. “I should have the right to introduce my daughter to the concept of adultery and coveting one’s spouse. It shouldn’t be one of the first things she reads in her kindergarten classroom,” Litzler said.

Some of the religious objections came from within the legislature. Rep. James Talarico (D-Austin), a former school teacher and a Christian who is a seminary student, went viral last month for his pointed comments during an exchange with state Rep. Candy Noble (R-Plano), the House sponsor of the bill.

“I say this to you as a fellow Christian,” Talarico said during a committee hearing. “This bill, to me, is not only unconstitutional, it’s not only un-American, I think it is also deeply un-Christian. And I say that because I believe this bill idolatrous, I believe it is exclusionary, and I believe it is arrogant, and those three things, in my reading of the Gospel, are diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus.

“We both follow a teacher, a rabbi, who said, ‘Don’t let the law get in the way of loving your neighbor. Loving your neighbor is the most important law,’” Talarico added. “It is the summation of all the law and all the prophets. I would submit to you that our neighbor also includes the Hindu student who sits in a classroom, the Buddhist student who sits in a classroom, and an atheist student who sits in a classroom. And my question to you is, does this bill truly love those students?” 

“It’s very authoritarian,” Sravan Krishna, a Southlake resident, told the Dallas Observer. “They [conservative lawmakers] complain about indoctrination, but putting the Ten Commandments in classrooms really is indoctrination.”

After Texas lawmakers passed a law in 2021 mandating that schools display donated “In God We Trust” signs, Krishna made national headlines last year when he was part of a group that tried to donate signs to Carroll Independent School District with the national motto written in Arabic and decorated with rainbows. The district declined the donations.

“[The Ten Commandments bill] is a play from the same playbook I saw last year,” Krishna told the Observer.

AU is preparing for potential litigation to challenge the bill if it passes.

School chaplains

Following several mass shootings at schools and other public spaces in Texas over the past five years, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and other state lawmakers have repeatedly resisted calls for substantive gun safety reform and instead leaned on talking points about improving mental health treatment as the preferred course of action. But investigations last year by the Houston Chronicle and CBS News found that the vast majority of Texas school districts did not come close to meeting the recommended ratio of counselors and other mental health professionals to students.

Rather than address the problem by helping school districts pay for more trained mental health professionals, Texas legislators instead have proposed to allow school districts to replace trained school counselors with religious chaplains — a suggestion that Americans United and many allied organizations, including faith groups, have opposed.

“Freedom of religion means that parents — not school officials or state legislatures — have the right to direct their children’s religious education and should be able to entrust that their children will not have a particular religious perspective forced on them while attending our public schools,” AU’s Nartowicz wrote in a letter to Texas lawmakers. “As a result, passage of this bill would likely result in litigation.” 

Imelda Mejia, a spokesperson for AU ally Texas Freedom Network, noted to Religion News Service (RNS) that while the school chaplains bill has advanced, at least three bills relating to school counselors were languishing in legislative committees. 

“You can see where their desires lay, and I don’t think it was giving our students what they needed,” she told RNS.

Under Senate Bill 763, school chaplains would not have to meet the state requirements for school counselors, which include having a master’s degree, two years of classroom teaching experience and certification through a state board. 

Democrats in the state House were able to amend the bill to include some minimal guidelines for school chaplains – prohibiting registered sex offenders from serving as school chaplains, instituting background checks and requiring chaplains to be endorsed by a religious organization and meet the chaplain standards set by the U.S. Department of Defense, Federal Bureau of Prisons or Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

However, amendments intended to ban the use of public funding for chaplains, require parental consent for them to minister to children, broaden student access to other faith traditions and limit the use of chaplains to larger school districts were defeated.

“You are a champion for parental rights, so I’m just curious why parental consent before a student can meet with a chaplain is not acceptable to you in this legislation?” Talarico asked the bill sponsor in the House, state Rep. Cole Hefner (R-Mount Pleasant). 

At press time, a version of the bill had passed both legislative chambers and was heading to a joint committee to reconcile the differences between the two versions, which would have to go a final vote before the legislative session ended. 

“Chaplains are part of our communities in the military, police, fire chaplains. They represent God in our government institutions,” state Sen. Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston), the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, told the Senate Education Committee.

AU’s Seidel countered that public schools are a very different environment than the military and other government bodies that have chaplains. “We allow chaplains in the military, for instance, because if you are a Christian, a Buddhist or a Jew serving in the U.S. military in a country like Saudi Arabia, it could be very difficult for you to find a house of worship,” Seidel said in the Dallas Observer. “This is a very different deal. This bill is saying, ‘We are going to use the machinery of the state to impose religion on a captive audience of schoolchildren, and we’re not going to vet that person at all.’”

Prayer and Bible reading

In addition to the school chaplains bill, Middleton also sponsored Senate Bill 1396, which would allow public schools to create a period designed to allow students and employees to pray and read the Bible and other religious texts. 

“The reality is that our school children and faculty spend much of their lives in the school building and classroom … and our schools are not God-free zones,” said Middleton, according to the Courthouse News Service.

Once again, AU’s Nartowicz wrote to legislators urging them to oppose the bill. He explained that the Constitution already grants public school students the right to pray and read religious texts as long as it is voluntary, non-disruptive, student-led and student-initiated. Plus, by allowing schools to dedicate instructional time for a religious purpose and inviting employees to join, and perhaps even lead, students in prayer and Bible reading, the bill is unconstitutional, he wrote. Nartowicz pointed to the Supreme Court’s Kennedy decision, which reaffirmed the principle that public school employees cannot coerce students to pray with them. 

“This bill encourages public schools and their employees to violate settled constitutional law that prohibits schools from sponsoring religious activities and school employees from participating in prayer or readings of the Bible and other religious texts during the school day,” Nartowicz wrote. “If enacted, students may feel pressured to join their teacher’s religious practices.”

Halley Trevas, a board member of AU’s Houston Chapter, wrote in Houston’s Jewish Herald-Voice that Jews and people of other minority faiths are especially at risk from these bills: “Not only do these and other proposed bills violate settled constitutional law prohibiting public schools from sponsoring religious activities, but they illustrate the Texas legislature’s blatant moves toward white Christian nationalism and away from acknowledging minority religions (or no religion) in our state.”

Biden administration weighs in

Texas isn’t the only state where religious extremists and their allies on state legislatures and school boards are attempting to advance Christian Nationalism in public schools. More than a dozen states have proposed bills involving prayer in public schools. And a variety of other bills involving religion in schools has cropped up around the country, from a narrowly defeated bill that would have allowed intelligent design creationism to be taught in West Virginia public schools, to some of the old Project Blitz bills encouraging or requiring schools to display “In God We Trust” and offer Bible classes, including a Bible bill that passed in Missouri.

Since supporters of these bills have wrongly cited the Supreme Court Kennedy decision as permitting school-sponsored religion in public schools, Americans United welcomed updated guidance from the Biden administration’s Department of Education in May that accurately explained the religious freedom rights and responsibilities of students and educators in public schools. 

“We applaud the Biden administration for updating the guidance, which centers the religious freedom of public school students,” AU’s Laser said. “As the administration reaffirms, public schools must be open and inclusive for students of every religion and none.

“Perhaps most importantly, the guidance emphasizes that public school employees, including teachers and coaches, may not coerce students to pray,” Laser added. “Nothing about the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District changes the fact that the Constitution prohibits public schools from sponsoring prayer. This line has always been clear: Public school employees and officials cannot take advantage of their power and position to impose their personal religion on a captive audience of schoolchildren.”

Late-breaking update: As this issue of Church & State was going to press, the Ten Commandments bill failed in the Texas House of Representatives after Democrats used a procedural maneuver to prevent it from receiving a vote before a critical legislative deadline. However, Abbott has the power to call a special session, meaning the issue could resurface. The school prayer bill failed to receive a committee vote in the House and died. The school chaplains bill passed both chambers and is likely to become law. 

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