Mississippi Tells Public Schools to Develop Policies Allowing Prayers
By KIM SEVERSON
Published: March 15, 2013
Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi has long wanted children to pray at public schools. This week, with his grandmother’s worn Bible on his desk, he signed a bill that gets him closer to that goal.
The new law requires public schools to develop policies that will allow students to pray over school intercoms, at assemblies and at sporting events.
While not allowing school-sanctioned prayer, the law permits students to offer public prayers with a disclaimer by the school administration. “You might put on the program that this is not a state-sanctioned prayer if a prayer does break out at a football game or graduation,” Mr. Bryant said.
Although the state is not in the business of establishing religion, he said, “we are about making sure that we protect the religious freedoms of all students and adults whenever we can.”
For groups trying to keep prayer and public education separated, the law was the latest legislative action aimed at moving the two closer together without violating the Constitution.
“A bunch of states this year are pushing corrosive religious legislation of all kinds,” said Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The bills have become more prolific in part, he and others say, because conservatives control both the governorships and legislatures in 24 states.
Several bills use tax money to finance private religious schools, and efforts to bring prayer to public schools have been introduced in states around the country, most noticeably in the South.
Lawmakers in South Carolina this year introduced legislation that would allow for prayer during a mandatory minute of silence at the start of the school day, provided that students who do not want to hear the prayer can leave the classroom.
Last year, Florida approved a bill to allow students to read inspirational messages at assemblies and sporting events, which prompted groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Mr. Conn’s organization to send letters to every school district in the state threatening legal action if the law was put into practice.
In Missouri, voters in 2012 approved a constitutional amendment that gives residents the right to “pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools,” and in Virginia this year, State Senator Bill Stanley has introduced a similar amendment.
The laws follow a 2000 United States Supreme Court ruling that stopped student-led prayers over public address systems at high school football games in Texas, said Daniel Mach, director of the A.C.L.U. program on freedom of religion and belief.
“These laws go further, requiring public schools to create opportunities for proselytizing from the school’s official podium during events that students must attend,” he said.
School prayer has become a touchstone in the nation’s divide over religion.
In the days after the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn., former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who is a minister, advocated school prayer.
“We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools,” he said in a television interview. “Should we be surprised that schools would become places of carnage?”
In Mississippi, local A.C.L.U. leaders said the new law would prove unconstitutional if challenged in court, a move the group would not make until a school instituted the new policy, which takes effect in July.
Mr. Bryant, anticipating a legal challenge, said, “We would be honored to spend it in defending religious freedoms for the people of the state of Mississippi.”
Under the law, Mississippi school districts would have to follow guidelines allowing a “limited public forum” at school events for students to express religious beliefs. For example, the districts must include a disclaimer that says the students’ prayers do not reflect an endorsement or sponsorship by the district.
But that still exposes children who might not share the religious views of the students expressing themselves, said Bear Atwood, legal director of the Mississippi A.C.L.U.
“People never think, what if it’s a different religious prayer than my child’s faith?” she said.
Fighting to keep religion out of schools is a frequent task for the group. In October, the group sent a letter to the Lincoln County School District asking that a school remove Christian symbols and stop prayers before events.
“Mississippi is a very religious state,” Ms. Atwood said. “There are always people who are going to push back.”