Students should be able to individually express their religious views in public schools, but they should hardly be permitted to deliver sermons from a school podium.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant recently signed into a law a new statute that gives schools the ability to “develop policies that will allow students to pray over school intercoms, at assemblies and at sporting events.”
This is in part an effort to blur the legal lines, the “wall of separation,” between church and state.
Mississippi is not the only state to try and insert religion into schools. In 2012, Gov. Jan Brewer signed a new law that allows schools to offer elective courses on the history and literature of both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
The law’s sponsors stressed that they did not mean to infringe on the Constitution and the First Amendment and attempted to highlight the fact that the class would be about the cultural and historical influence of the Bible on Western culture.
Even if this was true, the elective class would only focus on the two texts, spend a significant amount of time on the text itself and would not include other important global religions that have had a significant influence on world history and modern politics, such as Islam or Buddhism.
Are these any less important in the modern world to make well-informed citizens?
The efforts of many state legislatures to pass laws guaranteeing this apparently endangered right to pray in schools reflects how divisive religion has become in American politics.
Proponents of the Mississippi law have argued that it clarifies what religious expression is allowed in schools, but the issue is not the constitutionality of students expressing their religion.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said in its previous decisions that students can express their religious views at schools, including through individual prayers and forming student groups concerning religion.
The issue is with state-sanctioned religious expression and prayer.
Though supporters cite the legislation’s stipulation that the school offer a disclaimer, in reality the prayers that students can offer under this bill will serve the exact same purpose.
In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled in Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe that student-led prayers over school intercom systems violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, as government policy had authorized the public speech and it took place on government property at school-related events.
This new law does not respect the Court’s decision in Santa Fe vs. Doe. Students at school gatherings will be able to effectively sermonize to those attending, despite the fact that these events are state-sanctioned through public schools.
While the disclaimer in the law is meant to make clear that the school does not support the religious message, it is simply a workaround to allow de facto state-sanctioned prayer in public schools.
American citizens certainly have the right to hold their own religious beliefs and generally practice them, but the Constitution — at least in the current understanding — prohibits the establishment of any state-sanctioned religions or any endorsement of a particular religion’s doctrine.
The allowance of these prayers in schools would effectively be the public school sanctioning the prayers given by students.
Mississippi is yet again toeing the line, which leads to the question: If the student giving a prayer is Christian, will an equal opportunity be given to those students of other faiths? What about those who adhere to no religion? What if an offered prayer offends someone?
And are those listening meant to be a captive audience, forced to stay silent through prayers to a God or gods they don’t believe in?
True, students could always leave in protest, but at a cost. In a highly religious state like Mississippi, speaking out against public prayer can have serious consequences. Students are therefore forced to participate in a religious activity, even if they are just passively listening.
The legislatures of Arizona and Mississippi are aiming to bring religion and state closer, and they are thus far succeeding.
Religion should remain in the private sphere and not in state-sanctioned school activities and policies.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at @jentrylanza