New and pending laws in several Southern states are reaffirming students’ rights to pray during the school day and at school-sponsored events such as graduations and football games.
Laws passed in South Carolina in 2012 and Mississippi in 2013 allow students to pray at assemblies, athletic events and other school functions. A 2007 Texas law lets student express religious viewpoints when they speak at school events.
These bills became more common after conservatives won more governorships and legislative seats in 2012. Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and other states have bills pending that would let students lead prayers on campus or during academic events.
Schools that don’t follow prayer guidelines included in No Child Left Behind risk losing federal funds. Department of Education policies released in 2003 allow students to read the Bible, say grace before meals, and pray or study religious materials during free time at school.
Religious clubs must be given the same access to school facilities as other extracurricular groups. And students can read prayers at school events, so long as the speakers are selected based on criteria other than their religious beliefs.
Civil rights groups believe these federal guidelines protect a student’s right to pray, but many districts remain fearful of lawsuits and tend to bar religious speech at school, says Gary Bauer, president of American Values, a conservative public policy nonprofit.
The new laws aim to clarify that religious speech is protected in the Constitution, he adds. “The critics say it’s already the case, but in operation it isn’t,” Bauer says. “There is an effort by these state legislations to educate both parents and school officials that these things are allowed.”
The lower courts have split on the issue of whether it is constitutional for students to express their faith in front of an audience at a school-sponsored event, which these laws allow, says Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, a nonpartisan organization that provides educational materials about first amendment rights.
“If school officials review the speeches of students, they must then take responsibility for those speeches,” Haynes says. “They should allow students to express their faith, but have to be careful not to allow a sermon, because it is school-sponsored.”
If administrators chose not to review a speech, they should include a disclaimer in the event program stating the school doesn’t endorse the speaker’s views, he adds.
Until 1962, it was common for teachers to start the school day with a prayer or Bible reading. That year, the Supreme Court ruled school-initiated prayer violated the First Amendment.