The Mississippi state legislature just passed, by an overwhelming margin, SB 2633, the the Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013. Much of the bill is pointless, merely restating what the law already protects, but there’s one section that is quite bothersome.
The bill says that students cannot be discriminated against on the basis of religion and are allowed to express religious viewpoints on homework assignments and elsewhere, and are allowed to form religious clubs with all the same rights as any other non-curricular club. Yawn. Federal law has long protected those things already, so that’s pretty pointless. But the bill goes further than that and seems to set up a designated time for students to talk about religion on a daily basis with a captive audience. In the model policy included for school districts to adopt, they urge the following:
The school district hereby creates a limited public forum for 118 student speakers at all school events at which a student is to publicly speak. For each speaker, the district shall set a maximum time limit reasonable and appropriate to the occasion. Student speakers shall introduce:
(a) Football games;
(b) Any other athletic events designated by the district;
(c) Opening announcements and greetings for the school day; and
(d) Any additional events designated by the district, which may include, without limitation, assemblies and pep rallies.
So they’re seeking to create more opportunities for student speakers to be able to proselytize to a captive audience, including every single day when announcements are made to the school over the PA system. The bill declares every such situation to be a limited public forum, meaning that anything said during that time is the expression of the person speaking rather than the school, and it means that the school cannot discriminate against any form of expression (other than obscene or illegal expressions). The model policy also sets limits on which students are allowed to introduce these events:
Only those students in the highest two (2) grade levels of the school and who hold one (1) of the following positions of honor based on neutral criteria are eligible to use the limited public forum: student council officers, class officers of the highest grade level in the school, captains of the football team, and other students holding positions of honor as the school district may designate.
Though this pretends to be “neutral criteria,” in practice it will ensure that the students picked to speak are part of the dominant Christian majority and thus that only Christianity will be advocated during these newly designated “introductions.” And you know damn well that there will be particular effort made to make sure that the school’s loudest Christian students will be the ones picked. If just once, a student got up to speak and offered a prayer to Allah or Vishnu, this whole limited public forum rationale would crumble into dust immediately and there would be outrage at the notion that a student could push their religion on other students in this manner (such rules only apply to non-Christian religions, of course).
We all know exactly what this is. It’s an attempt to have the school proselytize to students, but to provide legal cover so that the school can say they have nothing to do with it. After all, it’s a limited public forum. And the speakers were chosen by neutral criteria. The fact that the only ones who ever actually do proselytize at these events are Christians is mere happenstance.