The General Assembly is poised to approve a Senate bill that would clarify students’ rights to pray in school and would allow teachers and staff to “adopt a respectful posture” during student-led prayers.
The House passed an amended version of Senate Bill 370 on Wednesday night, 106-9. Last May, the Senate unanimously passed the bill and must vote again on the amended version before sending it to Gov. Pat McCrory.
The bill is a lengthier version of the current state statute, which states that school boards may neither prohibit nor require prayer in schools. The current statute is 97 words long, while the proposed changes are more than 1,000 words.
Bill sponsors say it would bring clarity to existing law, but it has raised concern from the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU policy director Sarah Preston said the bill was unnecessary, since the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution allows for religious freedom.
Preston said the bill also endangers religious freedom for minorities by allowing teachers and staff to essentially participate.
“It seems that school employees could bow their heads in prayer or drop to their knees in prayer, which would look like school employees would be participating in religion and make some students feel ostracized,” she said. “The most likely scenario is that you are going to have a majority religion and the children with the minority religion would feel ostracized.”
Preston said the group’s concern is not that students would be praying, but that teachers may appear to be promoting one particular religion. “It’s not that they cannot respect or adopt a respectful posture,” she said. “It’s that we do not want to see teachers participate in a religious activity.”
Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat, also took umbrage with the respectful posture phrase, saying it is unconstitutional. Though he voted for the bill, Glazier said, “The Bill of Rights, whether it is free speech or free exercise or the establishment clause, is meant to protect the minority.”
But Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican from Spruce Pine and a primary sponsor of the bill, said the language is clear.
“I think saying a teacher may assume a respectful posture is about as simple as it get,” Hise said.
Bill co-sponsor Sen. Stan Bingham, a Republican from Denton, said the bill was not intended to promote religious expressions among school employees.
“You wouldn't want a teacher to engage in prayer, obviously, because of the influence that would have on students,” Bingham said. “But this is not about that.”
It is about clarity, Bingham said.
“I think it's going to be very educational for a lot of people,” he said. “I didn’t even realize you can pray in schools today. It’s something that we can’t talk about, and that’s a shame. It’s not that we’re mandating or requiring that you do, it’s just that if you want to do this as a club, it’s wonderful.”
Bill co-sponsor Sen. Warren Daniel, a Republican from Morganton, said the main reason for the bill was to protect students.
Daniel cited a 2012 case in which a first-grade girl at West Marion Elementary School was forced to remove references to God from a poem about her grandfather that she recited at a Veterans Day program.
“That was the genesis of the bill,” he said.
The bill, Daniel said, will restate what is already law.
“It's unfortunate that a bill like this is even necessary, but in this day and age, it is,” he said. “I hope that it will create more clarity across the state in dealing with religious speech.”
Sponsors hope the bill will clear the Senate sometime next week.