Last year, Mississippi’s Republican Governor Phil Bryant signed into law a bill that made student-led, administration-supported proselytizing perfectly legal in the state’s public schools.
On the surface, the bill appeared to be useless — as one Americans United lawyer said of similar legislation, “This bill is a solution in search of a problem.” It said students could “express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination”… even though they could always do that. It said students could form religious clubs that met before or after school… which was also never in doubt.
Here’s where things got really weird. The bill said:
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.
In short, that meant that at football games, pep rallies, graduation ceremonies, and during morning announcements — anywhere where students could speak publicly — they would be allowed to pray if they wanted. The school wouldn’t be “endorsing” these views, per se, but they also wouldn’t stop them.
It’s precisely the kind of legislation you would expect in states where Christians are overwhelmingly in the majority. Because you know the moment a Muslim or Wiccan or atheist tried to talk about religion in those forums, there would be a huge uproar. Indeed, similar laws have passed in Texas and Tennessee. In Oklahoma, the bill was vetoed years ago by Democratic Governor Brad Henry but it’s up for consideration again.
What do those states have in common? They’re all places where Christians, of all people, have very little to worry about. As blogger Ashton Pittman said of the Mississippi law:
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.
In Georgia, Republican State Rep. Dustin Hightower is about to introduce virtually the same legislation. In a draft press release about the bill that’s not yet publicly available (but happened to land in my inbox), Hightower explains why this bill is necessary:
Often times we are faced with making decisions that test our faith. Our founding fathers knew the importance of faith, and they did all they could to protect our freedom to worship and pray as we “each” see fit. However, throughout the years, it is my opinion, that their intent has been lost. We hear people say everyday that the younger generation is lost, disrespectful, and lacking proper parental guidance. But what do we do to help change these things? As a society we condemn those that discipline their children, we look for excuses to explain inadequacies, and we take prayer out of schools. We give in too easily to those who try to take away our freedoms and steer us away from what our country was founded on.
This bill is a step to put Georgia back on the right path. A path that is lead by faith.
That’s politician-speak for “Up yours, atheists.”
(Incidentally, the same kind of legislation, without Hightower’s name, was introduced by other Republicans in the Georgia House two weeks ago. I’m not sure yet what the connection is between the two.)
As with the other states’ bills, I see two major problems.
First, it assumes students cannot currently pray in school. That’s not true. Students can pray anytime, anywhere, by themselves or as part of a group. But to allow Christian students — and we all know this bill is really just a gift to them — to hijack graduation ceremonies or football games or assemblies to pray is an awful policy that would never be tolerated if a Muslim or Wiccan student did the same thing.
I wish these same students and politicians would heed the words in Matthew 6:5-6: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray… to be seen by others… When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Second, it ignores the problem of students who do not want to participate. I suspect Hightower would say they don’t have to, but that would be missing the point. The alternative is to sit out (or not participate) during your graduation. Or to leave the room or remain awkwardly silent during the morning announcements. High school is hard enough as it is without forcing students to become social pariahs just because they’re not part of the majority faith.
The fact of the matter is that this bill and its clones would never be considered if the majority of students in these communities were Muslim or Hindu or atheist or anything-but-Christian. The fact that the laws in Mississippi and Texas haven’t been declared unconstitutional have as much to do with the fear students have of speaking out against the majority as anything else. It’s much easier to stay silent and go with the flow than to stand up against injustice.
The bill still needs to be approved by committees and passed by the state legislature and Governor.
I’ll post more information about this bill as it becomes available.