By FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott
South Carolina state representatives have been pushing a new prayer bill that would turn back the clock on constitutional rights. House Bill 3526 would add a new school prayer provision to state law, which already provides for a moment of silence to start each school day. The bill directs that, during the minute of mandatory silence, “the teacher may deliver a prayer, provided the school allows a student to leave the classroom if the student does not want to listed to or participate in the prayer.”
For starters, how can a mandatory minute of silence include a prayer delivered by a teacher? That may work if all teachers and students become fluent in sign language, but that seems highly unlikely.
The underlying minute of silence law is already suspect and a waste of time as a matter of policy. It is as if schools are saying, “Okay kids, we have gathered you here to learn and now let’s just sit here for a minute every day doing nothing.”
Of course, the real issue is the blatantly unconstitutional prayer provision. Government officials would be all too happy if all it took to avoid violating the Establishment Clause was a crafty exemption for students who do not subscribe to the teacher’s religion. Making those students leave the room and sit in the hall is not a novel idea. Some of the Supreme Court’s landmark school prayer cases involved similar facts. In McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) and Lee v. Weisman (1992), it was claimed that there were opportunities for objecting students to not participate in the religious practices. In all instances, the Supreme Court ruled that the schools were violating the Constitution and the rights of students.
Rep. Wendell Gilliard, who is a bill sponsor, has walked back the proposal, saying students could pray in their own way, adding, “The essential part of the bill, the important part, is putting prayer back in school.” I cannot imagine a more clear statement of the religious purpose behind the bill.
One can presume that the prayer bill is just pandering to a religious base and the bill will go nowhere. However, there is a very real political contingent in South Carolina that has no regard for the Constitution when it comes to religion and the First Amendment. I had the privilege last year of being on a panel that discussed First Amendment issues with superintendents and school board members from across South Carolina. While many were receptive to learning about the issue, a vocal minority of school board members made clear that they did not care what the Supreme Court rulings were on school prayer.
While some legislators would like to travel in time to before the civil rights era, judges are bound by current court precedent. FFRF and several students are challenging the prayer practices of one school district in court. A ruling is expected before the end of the school year. That case may well educate the educators on the necessity of separation of church and state in the school environment. As for educating legislators, they may be hopeless.