capitol longshotWritten by Don Byrd

Late Thursday night, the U.S. House passed numerous amendments to H.R. 5, the Student Success Act, including¬†one proposed by Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX) that passed by a voice vote. The amendment says it is “the sense of Congress . . . that students, teachers, and school administrators are able to fully participate in activities on elementary and secondary school grounds related to their religious freedom.”

Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) spoke in opposition to the amendment:

I would first note that the amendment gives great weight to the “free exercise of religion” without acknowledging the other half of the First Amendment, and that is the Establishment Clause.

I am also concerned that the amendment is duplicative of previous efforts under ESEA. In No Child Left Behind, section 9524 requires the U.S. Department of Education to issue guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools. This guidance was developed with the Office of the General Counsel in the Department of Education and with the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice.

Mr. Chairman, I am also concerned that the amendment implies that teachers can participate in religious activities with their students. The Constitution prohibits teachers from participating in religious activities with students when those teachers are acting in their professional capacity.

Public school employees simply do not have the “right to make the promotion of religion a part of their job description,” says the Supreme Court decision in 2007. A sense of Congress provision in this bill will not override the Constitution.

I would remind my colleagues that religious freedom means not only are students, teachers, and school administrators able to exercise their right to religion, but also that the students should be able to attend public schools free of unwarranted proselytization and coercion in the participation of religious activities. The First Amendment is reflective of that balance.

Rep. Scott is right. Students’ freedom to exercise religion is protected by the First Amendment, as expressed in Department of Education guidelines. But students also have the right to be free of coercive religious influence from teachers and school administrators. School district policies should reflect both concerns.

H.R. 5 is unfinished House business, still being considered.