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.
The Mesa Public Schools Governing Board in Mesa, Ariz., recently discontinued prayers to start its meetings after a letter from FFRF. But unfortunately it is now reconsidering its decision after several citizens protested the prayers' absence. The prayers were sectarian and included Christian references such as addressing a “Heavenly Father,” or ending with “In Your name Amen.” Students often attend the meetings.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel first wrote the school board a letter on Oct. 8, on behalf of a local complainant:
“Public school boards may not include prayer as part of their scheduled meetings. Federal courts have struck down school board practices that include this religious ritual. Prayer at public school board meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive.”
Seidel sent a follow-up letter on Jan. 7, 2013 reiterating why governmental prayer is problematic.
The school board is only reconsidering this issue because vocal citizens spoke out for prayer and against our Constitution. That means your opinion count! Please act to ensure the school board hears from you immediately so it does not capitulate to the Religious Right.
If you live in the area and can attend the regular school board meetings, they are generally held on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month. The next meeting should be Tuesday, Jan. 14. To check whether prayer is officially on the agenda, contact the superintendent at (480)472-0000 on the day of the meeting.
Meetings begin at 7 p.m. in the Board Room, 549 N. Stapley Drive, Mesa.
Contact the Mesa Public School Governing Board:
All Governing Board Members:
Or contact individually at:
Chair Mike Hughes:
Clerk Mike Nichols:
Mail: Mesa Public Schools Governing Board
63 E. Main St.
Mesa, AZ 85201-7422
Use your own words if possible, or cut and paste wording below.
Calling upon board members and citizens to rise and pray is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of secular county government. Board members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They do not need to worship on taxpayers' time. Nonbelievers and religious minorities, particularly students, should not be made to feel like political outsiders in their own community.
PROVOCATIVE QUOTES ABOUT PRAYER:
Even the New Testament Jesus warns against public prayer: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” (from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:5-6)
It is best to read the weather forecast before praying for rain. — Mark Twain, “Pudd’nhead Wilson”
Nothing fails like prayer. — Anne Nicol Gaylor (FFRF motto)
Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law. — Thomas Paine, “Age of Reason”
When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one. — Benjamin Franklin, “Works, Vol. VII, p. 506”
Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy. —Ambrose Bierce, “The Devil’s Dictionary”
Thank you for your help!
SAM GROVER received his B.A. in philosophy and government from Wesleyan University in 2008. He first worked for FFRF in 2010 as a legal intern while attending Boston University School of Law. In 2011, his article on the religious exemptions in the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate was published in the American Journal of Law and Medicine. After receiving his J.D. from Boston University in 2012, Sam worked as a law clerk for the Vermont Office of Legislative Council where he drafted legislation on health care, human services, and tax issues. He returned to work as a constitutional consultant for FFRF in the fall of 2013. Sam has written a paper on counterterrorism and the law that was published by the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City and has traveled to southern Africa to work under Justice Unity Dow of Botswana’s High Court.
FFRF stopped proselytization by a police officer in Toledo, Ohio. A concerned citizen informed FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell that during a traffic collision investigation, after asking whether the citizen attended church, the officer started recommending to him various churches in the area.
Cavell requested in a Nov. 26 letter that the police department remind the officer that such actions are unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
“[The officer’s] overt promotion of religion while acting in his official capacity as a government agent gives the unfortunate impression that the Toledo PD endorses Christianity over other religions and generally endorses religion over nonreligion,” wrote Cavell. In his response on Dec. 4, the Chief of Police assured FFRF that the situation would be investigated further and that “[the officer’s] supervisor was made aware of the incident and was instructed to counsel [the officer] about his actions.”