Earlier this summer, legislators in North Carolina passed Senate Bill 370, which (unnecessarily) reiterated the rights of students to express their faith in school. These rights were already protected under the law, but you can never appease religious voters too much…
The Republican-dominated House and Senate voted overwhelmingly in support of the bill, with plenty of Democrats helping them out. The Republican governor, as expected, signed it into law.
But there is reason to be worried because the bill included this line:
Local boards of education may not prohibit school personnel from participating in religious activities on school grounds that are initiated by students at reasonable times before or after the instructional day so long as such activities are voluntary for all parties and do not conflict with the responsibilities or assignments of such personnel.
According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, that’s unconstitutional:
“When a public school teacher prays with students, he or she is endorsing religion,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Even if the prayer is supposedly ‘optional’ it amounts to coercion when a teacher joins in. The U.S. Constitution has been interpreted to strictly prohibit this sort of behavior, and it doesn’t matter that some lawmakers in North Carolina or any other state disagree.”
That coercion factor still applies even if the prayers happen before or after school. If a faculty member is participating in a student-led prayer — let’s say a football coach or a strict teacher — it’s reasonable to think other students may be pressured to participate in order to remain on the adults’ good side.
AU sent a letter to school district leaders across the state reminding them of these issues.
I suspect it’ll likely go ignored until there’s a legal challenge, putting the state law in conflict with how the Constitution has been interpreted for decades now.
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