A teacher waves to her students as they get off the bus at Carter Traditional Elementary School on January 24, 2022 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
A state representative has filed a bill that would ban school boards from stopping public prayers and require schools to allow students conducting prayers to use school-owned property.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Tracey Estes, R-Winfield, would insert language into a 1993 law that says that no organization, including a local school board or athletic association, “may prohibit, impede, or deter a student-initiated and student-led voluntary prayer.”
It also says local boards of education shall allow the use of publicly-owned property, “such as a microphone or public address system” to aid in the communication of the prayer.
“All I’m simply trying to do with this bill is protect that, and not ever let the day come where the state of Alabama or any organizations operating within the state of Alabama would try to hinder that practice,” Estes said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
The U.S. Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayers in 1962’s Engel v. Vitale and school-sponsored Bible readings in 1963’s Abington School District v. Schempp. Federal education policy allows students to pray in school, as long as it does not disrupt instruction.
Schools can also dismiss students to pray during instructional time. For example, Muslim students may be excused to conduct daily prayers during the month of Ramadan, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Schools may not discourage prayer, unless it affects the material instruction on other students.
But in last year’s Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District decision, the court ruled 6-3 that a high school football coach, a public employee had a right to partake in a “quiet prayer of thanks.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the minority, challenged the majority’s interpretation of the facts of the case, and included photos of the coach surrounded by kneeling football players while holding up a football helmet.
Maggie Garrett, vice president for public policy at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates separation of religious expressions from public government, said the bill would make it more difficult for students to opt out of prayer.
“Like, staying silent is the way you really participate in a prayer,” she said. “So there is no way to not participate when it’s going over the loudspeaker and the microphone.”
The Alabama State Department of Education has a complaint form if students or school employees feel that their constitutionally-protected right to pray has been violated.
Garrett said that the use of school property for prayer makes the prayer seem school-sponsored.
“We would agree that, you know, truly voluntary, truly student-led prayer that is not disruptive is fine,” she said. “But this really transfers the concept from that to school-sponsored, where you’re using the mechanisms of the school to impose it on other people.”
Estes said he wanted to ensure current state law on school prayer would be maintained.
“But I’ve seen a lot of things that I never thought I would see,” he said. “This is really just a preventative measure, it’s not trying to be punitive or anything like that.”
The 2023 legislative session starts next Tuesday.
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