Bills promoting religion in public schools are advancing in the Texas legislature

by | May 3, 2023

The Texas state Senate passed four measures in April related to religion in public schools, some of which are raising significant religious liberty concerns for public school students and their parents.

Perhaps most directly concerning is SB 1515, which would require a copy of the Ten Commandments to be posted prominently in every grade school classroom. The bill, which passed the Senate 17-12 on a party-line vote, is an explicit challenge to previous court rulings that limit government-sponsored religious expression in public school settings. As The Baptist Standard reports, SB 1515 “even dictates the wording of the Ten Commandments—an abbreviated version of Exodus 20:2-17 from the Kings James Version of the Bible, essentially following the Protestant approach to the Decalogue.”

BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler tweeted: “Forcing public schools to display the Ten Commandments violates religious liberty. The government should not be in the position of making religious decisions. As Baptists, we reject this effort because of our theological convictions and our commitment to the First Amendment.” For more on the proposal, don’t miss this week’s Respecting Religion podcast. Amanda and Holly examine this bill and the shaky legal arguments being used to push this legislation, and they review a recent state Senate hearing on it.  

SB 1396, which also passed 17-12, would allow any school district to require schools to designate a time for prayer and reading the Bible or other religious text. The bill requires students wishing to participate in the designated religious time to provide a signed parental consent form waiving the parent’s right to bring a legal challenge under the Establishment Clause.

SB 1556 allows school employees to “engage in religious speech or prayer while on duty” unless an infringement on that right is necessary to further a compelling state interest and is the least restrictive means of achieving that interest. The bill passed the state senate unanimously.

Lastly, SB 763 would allow schools to hire chaplains to fill the role of guidance counselors, without requiring that they have the certification otherwise mandated by the state. As BJC Associate General Counsel Jennifer Hawks explained in a Baptist News Global report, this measure would jeopardize religious liberty:

Religious instruction for Texas students is best left to houses of worship, religious institutions and families. Allowing Texas schools to hire anyone under the label of ‘chaplain’ to perform the work of school counselors threatens religious liberty by substituting an undefined religious title for licensed counselor. The goal of public schools is not religious indoctrination.

The bill passed the Senate.

In light of the Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton, the current strength of the Establishment Clause appears uncertain, even in the context of public schools, where safeguards against government-sponsored religious pressures have traditionally been robust to protect the religious liberty of students and parents. Bill proponents in the Texas state Senate cite the Kennedy case as support for this legislative push. All four bills have been sent to the state House for consideration. Stay tuned.