The right to pray in public schools is an ongoing battle, especially in the Bible Belt South and Midwest.
This week Missouri voters overwhelmingly passed a “right to pray” amendment to the state’s constitution that strongly protects students’ religious expression in public schools. The amendment also stated that students could be exempted from classroom activities that violate their religious beliefs.
Legal scholars immediately predicted that the amendment would head to court with costly lawsuits for the state.
“This right has already been established by the U.S. Supreme Court,” says Adam Laats, an assistant professor in Binghamton University's Graduate School of Education, who has researched this issue for years. “The kinds of school prayer deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in the 1960s were those imposed by the state and led by a teacher or school official. The right of students to pray on their own has never been constitutionally threatened.”
Still, the argument about school prayer lingers.
Prior to 1949, public schools could employ religious education teachers who taught Christian faith and moral values. Then, in 1962, New York State’s Board of Regents allowed a daily morning prayer in schools that pled to an “Allmighty God” and a Pennsylvania school had similar ritual. The Supreme Court intervened and an array of cases followed including Abington School District v. Shemp. The Court struck down New York and Pennsylvania’s mandatory prayer.
It’s OK to bring your Bible to study hall.
Bible Belt states and the Roman Catholic Church were none too happy. Several states including Arkansas, Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, and Idaho passed laws requiring religious services in public schools. Eventually, these laws were fought and overturned in courtrooms.
Amendment 2 in Missouri passed with nearly 80 percent of the vote. State Rep. Mike McGehee, who sponsored the bill, said he simply wanted it to clarify what students can do regarding religion in public schools. He said earlier this week before the amendment’s passage, “It’s OK to bring your Bible to study hall.”
It’s always been fine to do so, Laats said, but often school officials are scared to even mention the word “religion.”
“Parents and school administrators have been confused about what is or isn’t allowed,” Laats said. “But this kind of amendment is still symbolic in gesture and not about pure theology, but more of a concept that Christians are under fire. You’re putting up a flag to say I am in favor of school prayer.”
Kerry Messer, legislative liaison for the Christian Life Commission of the Missouri Baptist Convention, said in an interview for the website Opposing Views that the Missouri amendment was the “very first time that any state has voted on this issue since the early 1960s, when prayer was removed from public schools.”
The Missouri Baptist Convention actively campaigned for the measure, putting 186,000 inserts in church bulletins.
Earlier this summer, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant advocated for nondenominational school prayer.
“I don't think it hurt us at all,” the governor told students at the American Legion Boys State. “I think it built our character, and I think it is what we should continue to do.”
In Alabama, Governor Robert Bentley proclaimed the last Friday in March “Day of Prayer Over Students Across Alabama,” where people pray over students, teachers, school administrators and support staff, and schools in public events.
Church leaders hope other states will follow Missouri’s lead. That’s very likely as much of the country adopts a “take back” attitude, craving a more wholesome era of God, apple pie and George Washington.
“Politicians and activists have long insisted that SCOTUS kicked God out of public schools,” Laats said. “This amendment is meant as a sort of line in the sand.”
What's your feeling on religion in public schools? Share your thoughts in comments.
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com