Religious Conservatives Mount New Push To Restore Christianity in Public Schools

Lawmakers in several states are renewing an old debate about religion in public schools following the Supreme Court’s decision in the Bremerton case last year.

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Children praying in school. Getty images

Emboldened by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, religious conservatives in Texas and elsewhere across the country are teeing up legislative proposals that would overturn more than 50 years of generally accepted precedent about religion in schools and reinsert Christian faith into America’s public schools.

Measures requiring classrooms in Texas to display the Ten Commandments and set aside time for reading the Bible and prayer sailed through the Texas state senate on party lines last week with little discussion and no debate. The lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, held the bills up as an attempt to expand religious liberty in the state.

“I will never stop fighting for religious liberty in Texas,” Mr. Patrick said in a statement after the vote. “Allowing the Ten Commandments and prayer back into our public schools is one step we can take to make sure that all Texans have the right to freely express their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Supporters of both bills cite last year’s Supreme Court decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton case as giving them the go-ahead to revive a debate that many thought was settled decades ago. In its decision, the court ruled 6-3 that the government violated a high school football coach’s First Amendment rights when it forbade him from praying with his players on the field following games. The Bremerton, Washington, school board had argued that the practice violated the Establishment Clause separating church and state.

Texas is not the only state wading into the issue of religion and schools since the Bremerton decision. Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, recently signed a law prohibiting schools in that state from punishing employees who engaging in private religious expression or banning the practice.

In Florida, the newly conservative-leaning Miami-Dade school board approved a measure allowing the district to commemorate the National Day of Prayer, and legislators in Alabama, Idaho, and Montana are also considering measures to open the way for religious expression in public schools that previously might have been considered problematic.

“While government cannot and should not coerce any citizen toward religion, it also cannot and should not inhibit religious freedom and expression,” the group that represented the plaintiff in the Bremerton case, First Liberty, says. “Government told countless teachers, coaches and administrators to keep their faith hidden for many years. But after our two Supreme Court victories, there’s a shift happening regarding religious expression in our country.”

The Supreme Court first declared prayer in public schools unconstitutional in a 1962 case, Engel v. Vitale. A year later, it prohibited school-sponsored Bible readings. Both, the court said, violated the Establishment Clause. In the years since, the rulings have been interpreted to mean that students can pray in school, but only if it is voluntary and does not disrupt school activities.

The Texas school prayer bill skirts the court’s earlier rulings by stressing that the practice of praying must not interfere with other school activities. Nonetheless, both public and charter schools would be allowed to set aside a block of time to pray and read the Bible or other religious texts. 

The Supreme Court has also ruled that requiring that the Ten Commandments be displayed in government spaces violates the Establishment Clause. In a 1980 case, it ruled the practice unlawful in schools, and in 2005 it ruled the practice unlawful in two Kentucky county courthouses but acceptable on the Texas state capitol grounds.

The Texas bills now head to the Republican-controlled state House, where they will be challenged by a loose coalition of atheists and other affiliated freedom-from-religion groups.

In a letter directed at state legislators, Americans United for Separation of Church and State acknowledged the First Amendment rights spelled out in the Bremerton decision, but cautioned lawmakers that the Constitution also prohibits public schools from sponsoring prayer or Bible study or allowing school employees to participate in such sessions. 

“This bill would clearly violate the U.S. Constitution and will likely result in costly litigation,” Americans United warned in its letter. “Accordingly, we urge you to respect all Texas students, regardless of their religion, and oppose this bill.”

The New York Sun

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