They’re back

School-sponsored prayer and Bible reading are returning to public schools.

By Ellis M. West

In 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court held that school-sponsored prayer and Bible-reading in the public schools violate the First Amendment clause prohibiting laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” The Court said that the clause was intended to protect religious freedom by preventing the government from legislating on religious matters, i.e., from passing laws whose purpose or effect is primarily to advance or hinder religion in general, any particular religion, any religious belief or practice, or any persons because of their religion.

Today most Christians accept and appreciate the Court’s decision. They understand that laws promoting Christianity not only discriminate against other religions but undermine the integrity of Christian faith.

Some persons, however, still resent the Court’s 1963 decision, and recently they devised an ingenious way of circumventing it. They drafted a law, one that has already been adopted by Mississippi and Tennessee and perhaps others states, which was recently passed by the Virginia General Assembly but vetoed by the state’s governor.
Regrettably, in order to win support for the law, its drafters disguised it as one that protects the religious expression of public school students. In Mississippi it is titled “The Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013.”

Even newspaper reporters have been deceived. In Virginia, articles in the Richmond Times-Dispatch described the proposed law as one “that would allow students to pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during and after the school day” or to “wear faith-themed clothing on public school property at public events.” Naturally, many persons are wondering why Virginia’s governor would veto such a bill.

The reason persons have misunderstood the law’s real purpose is because it does contain provisions supposedly giving public school students the right to pray publicly and otherwise express their religious beliefs. These provisions, however, are misleading because they imply that students do not already have such a right — which is patently false. Numerous Supreme Court decisions have made it perfectly clear that because of the First Amendment, religious expression by anyone, including students, must be protected just as much as other kinds of expression are protected — provided the expression is not coerced, sponsored, promoted or endorsed by any agency or person representing the government.

Thus, lower federal courts have held that students may wear religious jewelry, express a religious viewpoint in class assignments and, outside of classrooms, distribute religious messages and invitations to religious meetings. Even religion-based messages on T-shirts that condemn homosexuality, abortion and Islam have been allowed by most federal courts. In those cases where student religious expression was not allowed, it was not because the expression was religious, but because it interfered with the educational program or violated the rights of others.

Given these court decisions, there is no need for state laws protecting the religious liberty of students. This is not to deny that occasionally, either out of ill will or ignorance of the law, some school official or teacher may prohibit a student’s religious expression. For example, recently in Tennessee a student in an after-school program was not allowed to read the Bible, but the American Civil Liberties Union quickly condemned the prohibition as unconstitutional and acted to protect the student. There is, moreover, no evidence that this kind of infringement of religious expression is occurring often, and even if it were, the passage of another law would not prevent it. The only reason, therefore, for the provisions in the law supposedly protecting students’ religious liberty is to seduce persons, including legislators, into accepting the other part of the law — the part designed to return school-sponsored prayer and Bible-reading to the nation’s public schools.

What, then, is in the rest of the law? Its crucial provision requires all schools to create “a limited public forum at any school event at which a student is permitted to publicly speak.” In constitutional law, a “public forum” is a place or event on government property at which persons can say just about anything that they want to say on any subject. A “limited public forum” is one at which only certain persons, say, students, can speak and only on a certain subject, say, immigration policy. A public forum can be a one-time event at which several persons speak or a series of events at each of which only one, but not the same, person speaks.

In either kind of public forum, the government may not attempt to control or even influence the viewpoints expressed. For this reason, the law in question requires that student speakers at public school events be selected on some “neutral” basis, e.g., randomly, and that the schools publicly state that they do not endorse anything the students say.

Why does the law require that all school-sponsored events at which students speak be public forums? The answer: If schools decide to have opening remarks at the beginning of each school day, school assembly, and/or athletic event, and if students are asked to deliver these remarks, then if students say prayers and/or read Scripture during these opening remarks, and they are public forums, a school can claim that it is not sponsoring or endorsing the prayers or Scripture and, thus, is not violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Once such a law is passed, what will happen? In those states or parts of states where most persons are Christians, most school systems will pick students to deliver opening remarks each school day and at other events, and those students, on their own or because of pressure from parents, ministers and peers, will be very likely to say a prayer or a Christian devotional. Once a few students do this, others will find it difficult not to continue doing it. The few non-Christians will have to suffer in silence. This is the result for which the supporters of the law are hoping.

Eventually, however, the practice is very likely to be declared unconstitutional, because the schools will still be sponsoring the events involving prayer and Bible-reading. In contrast, schools in religiously diverse areas will probably choose not to have students speak at school-sponsored events because they could easily degenerate into verbal warfare between students of different religions. Schools in other areas will simply not know what to do.

To avoid such a mess and keep the schools out of the business of promoting Christianity, Baptists who believe in religious liberty should speak out against this so-called “student religious liberty” law and work to prevent additional states from adopting it.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.