3/25/13

Activists Mobilize as Mississippi Promotes Prayer in School

American Civil Liberties Union
American Civil Liberties Union (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As you have undoubtedly heard by now, 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. This bill, HB 638, was passed under the guise of protecting students' religious freedom; however, we recognize it for what 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.

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." He is correct. Implementing this law will further marginalize atheists and religious minorities throughout the state.

Public school students and teachers have always had the right to pray in school, and this is a commonly exercised right here in Mississippi. What they have not had the right to do is impose their religious views on others through public, school-sanctioned prayer. Mississippi is aiming to change that with this new law.

The law was written to bypass the prohibition on formal school-sanctioned prayer, and it does so by permitting students to deliver public prayers as long as they are accompanied by some sort of disclaimer from the school. This transparent charade must not be allowed to stand.

The Time for Activism

Groups like the 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. Unfortunately, they probably will not be able to do so until a school implements the law and causes harm to countless children in the process. These groups will need complaints in order to act, and their typical actions will include letters attempting to educate state officials on the law. Since their new policies will have the cover of this new state 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.

None of this means we just have to sit on our hands in the meantime. Now is the time for church-state activists to mobilize. There is at least one important thing we can start doing now: we need to educate our fellow Mississippians about why this legislation is a bad idea and how it will affect atheists and other religious minorities throughout our state. We need to drum up public opposition to this legislation.

Fortunately, this is not the sort of fight we atheists should have to wage on our own. I suspect there are at least a few Jews and Catholics here in Mississippi who are less than thrilled at the prospect of their children being exposed to evangelical fundamentalist Christian prayers on the school intercom each day. I suspect we can find some allies for this fight. And we are going to need them.

I realize that opposing legislation that is likely to be as popular in our state as this seems like an uphill battle. There is no getting around that. But again, most things worth fighting for are not easy. And this is definitely worth fighting for.

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