A School Prayer Bill in Mississippi Will Allow for More Student-Led, Administration-Supported Proselytization

Let’s get this straight right now: Students are allowed to pray in school. No one has ever taken that right away from them. What public schools can’t do is force everyone to say a prayer over the loudspeaker, at a football game, at an assembly, etc.

So you have to wonder why Senate Bill 2633 (PDF) in Mississippi is even necessary. The bill, called the “Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013,” would take those rights and then tack on a whole bunch of illegal methods of pushing religion in school.

What does the bill call for? Among other things, it says that students can “express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination” (which was never in doubt) and that students can form religious clubs that meet before or after schools (which was also never in doubt).

Here’s where it gets weird and very possibly illegal:

To ensure that the school district does not discriminate against a student’s publicly stated voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, and to eliminate any actual or perceived affirmative school sponsorship or attribution to the district of a student’s expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, a school district shall adopt a policy, which must include the establishment of a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events at which a student is to publicly speak. The policy regarding the limited public forum must also require the school district to:

(a) Provide the forum in a manner that does not discriminate against a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject;

(b) Provide a method, based on neutral criteria, for the selection of student speakers at school events and graduation ceremonies;

(c) Ensure that a student speaker does not engage in obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd or indecent speech; and

(d) State, in writing, orally, or both, that the student’s speech does not reflect the endorsement, sponsorship, position or expression of the district.

Here’s what that means in English: At football games, pep rallies, graduations, and morning announcements — anywhere where students speak — they must be allowed to pray. The school would have to offer a disclaimer that they’re not endorsing these views, but rather offering a “limited public forum.”

Since Christians are in the majority in the state, this means students of minority faiths (and no faith) would be subject to hearing Christian prayers at just about all school functions.

On Wednesday, the Mississippi House voted 108-6 in favor of the bill and Gov. Phil Bryant (a Republican, of course) is expected to sign the bill into law very soon.

Ashton Pittman explains the real significance of this legislation:

First of all, while gays, lesbians, transgender people, black people, Hispanic people, Native Americans and women face actual and structural discrimination in Mississippi, evangelical Christians most certainly do not. It’s quite disingenuous for these people, who often advocate for and uphold discrimination against real minority groups, to pretend that Christians — of all groups — need some sort of special protection against discrimination in Mississippi. Sorry, a 108 vote majority says you’re not eligible for a slice of the victimhood pie.

This is unnecessary legislation, and the idea that Christians need more opportunities to pray is ridiculous.

I know it’s a stereotype, but Mississippi’s education system could use some real help. But instead of passing laws that would actually benefit students, the bill’s sponsor, State Senator Chris McDaniel, is more concerned about whether Christians have ample opportunity to proselytize during school hours.

The ACLU of Mississippi says they’ll file a lawsuit if they need to. That hesitation seems unnecessary. Start drafting that lawsuit now because this bill will pass and the state government’s going to be embroiled in another faith-based distraction.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.