The Alabama House of Representatives passed a bill last week aimed at protecting public school students’ constitutional rights to prayer and religious expression. But many are saying the bill, should it become law, won’t change anything and it probably isn’t needed in the first place.
The bill’s author, Republican state Rep. Mack Butler, said the law, which is being called the Student Religious Liberties Act, is needed because students are losing their rights.
“A series of federal court decisions over the last 50 years has continued to whittle away the rights to prayer and religious expression in schools,” Butler said, according to WDHN News “These decisions have created more confusion than clarity in terms of what is permissible and what is not in our public schools, but my legislation remedies this problem by securing and protecting the right to student-led prayer and religious expressions while on campus grounds.”
But Tallapoosa County Schools Superintendent Joe Windle told the The Alexander City Outlook the current law is already pretty clear about what religious expression is permitted and students in his district regularly avail themselves of those rights.
“The bill didn’t change anything,” Windle said. “Students already have the right to pray in our Tallapoosa County schools. We have student-led prayer before many of our extracurricular events. We give individual prayer time every morning.”
He said students pray at Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ meetings and at Meet at the Pole events as well as at prayer walks, held before the beginning of each school year.
“The court rulings have never eliminated prayer in schools,” Windle added. “The courts have based their rulings on the principle of promotion. Public schools may not promote a specific religion or require a child to pray.”
A recent column from Kyle Whitmire at Al.com suggests Butler might have already known all of this. Whitmire says in the piece that Butler told him in February the bill only makes things legal that are already legal.
“Under the new law, students may participate in student-led religious activities in school, which the federal courts have said already do not violate the division of church and state,” Whitmire writes, pointing out the bill’s redundant protections.
“Not only will Alabama school students have their religious liberties double-dog protected by Alabama law and the U.S. Constitution, but judges and pastors will, too,” he adds. “Of course, the First Amendment of the Constitution already protects clergy from government interference, but what's a little thing like already-guaranteed Constitutional rights to stop Alabama lawmakers from grandstanding?”
Butler’s bill passed the House with an 80-11 vote. It now heads to the Senate. If successful there, it will have to be signed into law by Republican Gov. Robert Bentley.
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