School still life with copyspace on chalkboard
Written by Don Byrd

Via Religion Clause, the Mississippi House voted yesterday to pass a Student Religious Liberties Act. Associated Press reports:

The measure would guarantee student rights to talk about faith in class and allow them to organize religious clubs. Sponsors, in legislative debate, have said teachers and school administrators are confused about what religious expression is legal, and that the state needs a law to keep schools from wrongly suppressing religion.

But the proposal, modeled in part on a law passed in Texas, would also create a path to allow students to pray at football games and graduations and during morning announcements.

What would that “path” look like?

It suggests naming such events as “limited public forums,” choosing students to speak at each. The bill says schools can’t punish students who pray, and sponsors say the aim is to promote such prayer.

Whether it’s the bill in Texas, the similar ones contemplated in Oklahoma, or Missouri, or this Mississippi version, these kinds of student bills are unnecessary to protecting religious freedom, and are bound to cause more confusion and litigation than they prevent.

The First Amendment protects students’ right to pray privately, or together when not interfering with instructional time. That same First Amendment prohibits schools from leading or organizing school prayers through the podium or PA system controlled by officials, whether at football games or graduation ceremonies. Students shouldn’t have to choose between attendance at such events and staying true to their faith, and the Supreme Court has generally not allowed schools to require such a decision.

A limited public forum would not allow school officials to choose students to speak based on the religious viewpoint of the speaker. It certainly would not allow a forum whose “aim is to promote…prayer.”

Nothing about this bill will change those realities. To the extent it convinces some that it does, it serves only to sow confusion and invite legal confrontation. The legislation has passed both houses, however, and is on to the Governor, who is expected to sign.