Negotiating the boundary between church and state to determine what is allowed by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment Clause of the US constitution can be tricky at times and the US Supreme Court has grappled with it on numerous occasions. But one thing is quite clear and that is that official school sponsored prayer in public schools is not allowed.
But the state of Mississippi seems to have still not got the message and they are trying once more to introduce legislation that would allow such prayer at official functions under the guise of giving students freedom to express their views on religion. The bill is called the Schoolchildren’s Religious Liberties Act and what it does is to specify that such events are to be considered a ‘limited public forum’ and that as long as the students who speak at school events are chosen on the basis of ‘neutral’ criteria, they are then free to express their views in any manner from any perspective, including a religious one, as long as they do not engage in “obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd, or indecent speech”.
Opponents say that this is merely a ruse to sneak prayer into schools.
Bear Atwood, interim director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, said this bill has the same flaw — forcing students to listen to someone else’s religious expression — that led judges to strike down a previous Mississippi law allowing student-led prayer.
“The courts have never said it’s OK to hold a captive audience,” Atwood said.
Advocates for the bill say that because the school wouldn’t dictate the message and would publish a disclaimer that it wasn’t sponsoring prayer, the practice would be legal. Atwood, though, questioned whether the bill would truly create a hands-off public forum, since the model policy calls for schools to limit speaking opportunities to certain students who win honors. It says schools also should prevent vulgarity and make sure remarks are appropriate to the occasion.
“It’s really, actually, quite regulated in terms of what the content can be,” Atwood said.
Jonathan Turley says that the sponsors of the Mississippi Act seem to be trying to circumvent the clear prohibitions against prayer in public schools. Given that Mississippi ranks at the bottom of most rankings of education, he suggests that legislators might want to focus on more pressing needs.
There is no law needed to allow students to prayer silently of course. These laws generally reflect a continuing desire to establish an official time or opportunity for prayer. Recently the same type of legislation was struck down in Mississippi but that does not stop further efforts fueled by politics and “a hope and a prayer.” Of course, the inevitable challenge will burn money in litigation that could be spent to actually improve Mississippi schools.
It is not really surprising that Mississippi is still fighting battles that should be considered settled. After all, it was only this month that they got around to formally ratifying the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery. The Amendment received the necessary ratification by three-fourths of states in 1865 but Mississippi, after having initially rejected it in 1865, finally got around to doing so only in 1995 and even then they did not formally notify the US Archivist as required by law and so technically they remained the sole holdout. The new film Lincoln prompted someone in that state to look into what happened and discovered the omission which was then corrected.
So on February 7, 2013 Mississippi became the last state to officially endorse the abolition of slavery. Is it any surprise that the 1962 Supreme Court ruling in Engel v. Vitale that set the precedent of not allowing school prayer (and was reinforced and expanded in 2000 in Santa Fe v. Doe) has still not sunk in? After all, it has only been fifty years.