By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press
JACKSON — State lawmakers hope that if they create a “limited public forum” for Mississippi public school students, they will make it legally acceptable for prayer before fellow students and other audiences.
A bill proposing giving students a chance to speak every school day as well as before every athletic competition, graduation or school event was approved Friday by the House Education Committee.
“We all need to pray,” said Rep. Kevin McGee, R-Brandon. “Hopefully, if this bill passes, we will be able to do that in many different places.”
A few committee members were opposed though, fearing that the measure is an invitation to disputes and lawsuits.
“I just think you’re opening up a Pandora’s box,” said Rep. Nick Bain, D-Corinth.
After the meeting, Sam Bounds, executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, said that his association was also concerned that the proposal could force school districts to permit offensive viewpoints.
The bill is styled as an anti-discrimination measure, called the “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act” or the “Schoolchildren’s Religious Liberties Act.” Besides trying to clear the way for students to pray legally, it bans teachers from penalizing or rewarding students for expressing religious views in schoolwork. It also requires that students be allowed to organize prayer groups and religious clubs and that outside religious groups be allowed to use school facilities in the same way as nonreligious groups.
Last fall, a number of Mississippi school districts stopped allowing prayers before football games after they received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group of atheists and agnostics. That letter noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had outlawed student-led prayer before football games in a 2000 case that originated in Texas.
Some Mississippi districts, including DeSoto County, the state’s largest, had been allowing pregame prayer even though they had policies banning it. Many condemned the ruling, and in places, a moment of silence was filled with audience-led prayer organized in advance.
More broadly, school prayer in Mississippi has been tied in legal knots since 1996, when a judge ruled that Pontotoc County schools couldn’t allow students to pray over the intercom each morning or have Bible study classes. The judge ruled that schools can’t assemble “captive audiences” for prayer.
The House measure is authored by Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, who introduced the same measure in 2011, 2010 and 2009, along with sponsors who pushed similar measures in the Senate in those years. Friday was the first time that such a bill has been passed by a Mississippi committee.
The measure appears modeled on a Texas law that was passed in 2007. A similar bill was vetoed in Oklahoma, and variations have been introduced in other states.
The idea is that prayer by student speakers that the district disclaims control over will be OK. That legal theory springs out of the 2000 Supreme Court case, which found that student-led prayer at football games was implicitly understood to be sanctioned by the district.
Mississippi already has a state law that says students can give “nonsectarian” or “nonproselytizing” prayers at mandatory and voluntary events including student assemblies, football games and graduations. That law also says that the state is not sanctioning such prayers.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said that there’s no legal basis for such a disclaimer.
“You’re at a graduation; that’s not a public forum. Ditto a football game,” she said.
However, a federal court settlement last month that cracked down on graduation prayer in another Texas district does not bar student speakers from praying. It does say the district can’t support prayer, can’t invite speakers who will proselytize and can’t specifically label a speaker as giving an “invocation” or “benediction.” It also requires the district to print and announce that it’s not responsible for student speech at graduations and athletic events.
That Texas case drew national attention after critics, including presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, publicly attacked U.S. District Judge Fred Biery. The judge wrote that security had been stepped up after assassination threats, and that those who used the case to further political goals “should be ashamed.”
Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards Association, said that despite that controversy, there hasn’t been a definitive ruling on the “limited public forum” gambit. She said Texas’ 1,000-plus school districts have responded to the law in varying ways, with only two lawsuits so far that she knew of. The law is still thorny for schools, she said. One controversy involved the association offering to its members a different implementation policy than the one contained in the law, which brought the association itself under attack. Formby’s bill also has a model policy for districts.
“The fact that it is couched as an anti-discrimination law made it very attractive,” Baskin said. “What is not as visible is the challenge that is presented it implementing it in the face of strong views in the community.”
The bill is House Bill 638