Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill requiring public schools in our state to develop policies under which students will be permitted to pray at sports events, school assemblies, and even over school intercom systems. Bill, HB 638, was passed under the guise of protecting students’ religious freedom; however, it is an effort to bypass Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp, returning to the days before 1962 when prayer in school was inescapable.
The law was written to bypass the prohibition on formal school-sanctioned prayer. It does so by permitting students to deliver public prayers as long as they are accompanied by some sort of disclaimer from the school. But students and teachers have always had the right to pray in school, and is commonly exercised in Mississippi. What they have not had the right to do is impose their religious views on others.
David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, referred to the legislation as “an overt act of hostility against minority religious beliefs and atheists, disguised as religious freedom.” Implementing this law will further marginalize atheists and religious minorities.
American Civil Liberties Union, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State are widely expected to fight this new legislation, which takes effect on July 1. These groups will need complaints in order to act, which include letters attempting to educate state officials on the law. It seems unlikely that school officials will give in to the pressure from these groups. This means that it might take the family of a child adversely affected by the law being willing to come forward as a plaintiff. Unfortunately, children will have to be harmed and complaints filed before real work can happen.